By Dawn Van Osdell
Getting even the most resilient kids into the routine of a new school year can be painful for parents. But the changes associated with going back to class—and even the anticipation of them— can be much tougher for kids, causing them physical discomforts that can be felt as headaches and belly trouble.
“As kids transition back to school and a regular routine hasn’t yet been established, their bodies struggle with lack of sleep and stress, which are all big triggers for headaches and belly pain,” says Nick DeBlasio, MD, a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
The trick to avoiding these pesky pains, he says, is to ease kids back into the school year routine, and to talk about the changes that lie ahead well before the first school bell rings. Here are the top five culprits for triggering kids’ aches and pains—especially during the first days of a new school year—and tips from the experts on easing the ouch.
1. Lack of Sleep. Elementary school-age children need 10 to 11 hours of sleep per night. Even parents with the best intentions often fail at coaxing kids to sleep earlier than that before the first day back to school, especially when it’s still light outside. This means kids are sleep-deprived until their bodies adjust to a new schedule. “Initially, children are excited to come to school and we may not see children with stomachaches or headaches immediately, even if they are sick,” says Beth Mattey, a school nurse and president of the National Association of School Nurses. “The excitement of the first day of school is powerful.”
But when the excitement wears off and the effects of sleep deprivation begin to take a toll, she sees exhausted kids who are hurting and unable to concentrate. To get kids back on schedule and logging the sleep they need, start inching your way back to school-year bedtimes a week—or at least a few days— before school starts. Helping kids set their own alarm clocks to rouse their sleepy selves out of bed in the morning can also be helpful.
2. Stress and Anxiety. It is normal for kids to experience low levels of “ anticipatory anxiety” around the first day of school, and to feel the physical symptoms that worry can cause, such as headaches and stomachaches, says Kristin Carothers, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. Kids often worry about making new friends or re-acquainting with old ones; the structure of a new year; whether their new teacher will be nice; and about academic pressures.
“Physical symptoms linked to anxiety often seem to come out of nowhere, but they can actually be linked to the prospect of having to do something you would rather avoid,” Carothers explains.
Parents can help kids alleviate dread by talking about their own experiences and sharing ways they’ve overcome nervous or worried thoughts. “Reassure kids that the start of a new school year is an opportunity to make new friends, learn new and exciting things, and it’s a right of passage for getting older,” says Carothers. Remind them that there will be other kids who are feeling uneasy, too. Good preparation—such as having supplies stocked, clothes organized, and a schedule carefully spelled out—will also help alleviate any last minute concerns or hectic activity that may create anxiety.
3. Dehydration. Kids need nearly as much water as adults—seven cups per day is recommended for nine to 12 year-olds. During the summer, they can easily meet their quota, grabbing a drink whenever they are thirsty. Once they’re back in the classroom, it’s not so easy to hydrate. Many kids simply forget to drink during their busy school days. Outside recess, gym class and lingering warm weather all increase the need for fluids and can quickly contribute to dehydration, which causes a nagging headache for busy bodies. Send kids off in the morning with a refillable water bottle and discuss the importance of keeping their bodies and brains well hydrated. You can also boost hydration by incorporating fruits and vegetables with high water content—such as watermelon, strawberries, celery, and cucumbers—into their diet.
4. Skipping Breakfast. It’s not uncommon for kids to skip breakfast in their rush to beat the bell. And those who do eat breakfast may be grabbing a less-than-stellar meal, despite our intentions of sending them off with proper nourishment. Kids who don’t eat a satisfying breakfast start feeling hunger pains or belly aches by mid-morning.
You don’t have to set the alarm clock an hour early to properly fuel your kids and keep hunger pains at bay. A simple mix of complex carbohydrates and protein— such as whole-grain toast and peanut butter or a hard-boiled egg—served with a bit of fruit will do the trick. “Many students may need a mid-morning snack even if they do eat breakfast,” warns Mattey—so be sure to pack a healthy snack or two in addition to a nourishing, satisfying lunch.
5. Constipation. Belly pain can result from anxiety and hunger, but a lot of it can be attributed to constipation, says DeBlasio. “Some kids don’t want to poop at school so they’re holding it in until they get home.” Waiting hours to use the bathroom can cause constipation and an associated bellyache. Further acerbating the problem are unhealthy school lunches. “Even if the school is serving good food, it can be a problem when kids are allowed to choose their selections,” says DeBlasio—many kids will cobble together an unbalanced mix that’s heavy in fat and sugar.
Ward off constipation by ensuring kids eat a diet high in fiber: plenty of whole fruits, vegetables and grains. You can send a lunch from home or discuss with them how to make healthy food choices from the school cafeteria. These meals should include plenty of fluid, too. It’s also beneficial to help kids establish regular bowel habits, possibly incorporating bathroom time into their morning routine.
Fortunately, the majority of headaches and stomachaches kids feel are not cause for alarm. Although if pain persists or becomes severe, it’s best to have your child evaluated by a pediatrician. Otherwise, you can ward off nasty headache and stomachache triggers by getting kids prepared for school and in a routine as soon as possible, and getting them excited for the year ahead. Mattey suggests families take advantage of school sponsored welcome events, such as back-to-school night or teacher meet-and-greets. Carothers suggests linking success with new routines to special privileges— such as play or screen time—for extra motivation. Remind kids who are especially reluctant to leave the leisurely days of summer behind that there’s plenty to get excited about including new friends, field trips and special activities.
“There’s so much hype around the first day of school,” says DeBlasio. “Kids are often too afraid to admit their fears around it.” Get them talking about what they are excited about and what will be challenging, and you’ll be sure to get them off to a healthy and happy fresh start.
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