Department of Health

Getting Your Children Off to a Healthy Start

Nutrition, physical activity, health care and safety are key.

January 1, 2013 | 5 min reading time

Usually at this time of the year, many of us are focused on what we can do to improve our lives.  A lot of our efforts center on our own health and the need to improve our personal habits.  However, for the parents of young children, this responsibility extends beyond their own health to their children's health too. Young children are dependent on their parents for nearly every aspect of their lives.  Parents must focus on making a healthier start for their young children and preventing the health conditions that would shorten their lives.

There is a prediction out there by several health experts that "this generation of children will be the first generation to not outlive its parents."  Essentially, they are saying that today's children will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents currently do.  That prediction is a major source of concern for parents today.  Although the prediction above is dire, it does not have to become a reality.

There are a number of new parents and parents of young children at the City's Department of Health (DOH).  Because they work with current health issues every day, we thought it might be interesting to see what these parents were doing to make sure their children had the best start in life.  Parents at the DOH were asked what actions they have taken to ensure their children have the healthiest start possible.  Among respondents, the actions seemed to fall into four major categories: nutrition, physical activity, health care, and safety.


A lot of the concerns expressed had to deal with food.  Parents interviewed were concerned about genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) in foods, the constant and heavy marketing of junk food to children through various media outlets, the large amount of fast food options available, food allergies, and the abundance of over-processed and chemically-treated foods.  Two healthier nutrition practices parents reported were breastfeeding and promoting healthier food items.

Registered dietitian Melissa Ramel, Nutrition Coordinator for the City's Let's Move STL Program cuddles her son, Christopher.

Registered dietitian Melissa Ramel, Nutrition Coordinator for the City's Let's Move STL program cuddles her son, Christopher.

Breastfeeding is important!  Melissa Ramel, registered dietitian and nutrition coordinator, chose to breastfeed.  Ramel states, "As breastfeeding is the healthiest option available for infants, I have provided my son Christopher with breast milk only.  I plan to provide breast milk [to him] through 12 months of age."  Like Ramel, Kelly Zara, an epidemiologist, also breastfed her daughter Holly.  Another benefit to breastfeeding is the reduced risk of developing food allergies.

What a child eats when they start consuming solid foods is equally important.  Angela Turner, a Public Health Nurse II working in School Health, is a mother of two girls and expecting a third.  Turner stated that her kids are "frequently offered fruits and vegetables."  Although she is flexible, Turner adds, "They are required to eat a certain amount of the fruit and vegetables on their plate.  Also, they do not drink soda and have limited juice intake. Their main fluid intake is milk and water."  Zara agrees on the importance of healthy foods and tries to ensure her daughter eats a variety of foods.  "You have to keep introducing foods even if they refuse them at first," says Zara. Fresh fruits and vegetables are also high on Ramel's list of healthy foods.  Beginning at 6 months, she will be making baby food at home using fresh fruits and vegetables.  Another mom serves a predominantly organic diet to her young daughter.

Physical Activity

Developing good physical activity habits should begin at a young age.  This will reduce their chances of being overweight or obese later in life. That will also reduce their chance of developing life-shortening diseases and conditions like heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.  Parents interviewed demonstrated an understanding of the importance of being physically-active and reducing screen time for their children.

DOH Epidemiologist Kelly Zara holds her daughter Holly.

DOH Epidemiologist Kelly Zara holder her daughter, Holly.

The parents we interviewed are already taking action in this area.  Zara advocates for healthier behavior as a family.  "I think as parents we need go back to basics like spending time outdoors, having dinner as a family, and monitoring the time our children spend in front of a screen.  We know for ourselves that too much screen time (TV, computer, phone) usually means we are not getting up and walking around which leads to an inactive lifestyle," states Zara.  She limits TV time for her daughter to 30 minutes or less a day.  Another mom incorporates "a boatload of activity and fun, learning adventures" into her daughter's life.  Turner loves the "Let's Move!" program inspired by First Lady Michelle Obama.  "It shows children how to make healthy food choices and makes exercise fun.  They use famous individuals as well as everyday kids to encourage other children to make healthy choices," says Turner.  (As the coordinator for the Let's Move STL effort, I'm sure Ramel would agree.)

Health Care

Health care is important for mother and child.  The best start for a child's health begins even before they are born.  Zara says, "I made sure to get proper prenatal care including prenatal vitamins with folic acid." She adds, "I also made sure my daughter got proper pediatric care and immunizations."


Safety was a concern as well.  One mom stressed the importance of using the right kind of car seat, the right way, each time she travels to prevent injury to her daughter in the event of a car accident.  Zara noted that it is important for parents to know about and limit exposure to environmental contaminants like lead, parabens, and Bisphenyl A (BPA).  However, her more immediate concern with a toddler who is walking and climbing is protecting her from ingesting something that she is not supposed to, keeping her away from sharp objects, and preventing her from falling off an elevated surface.

There are a lot of forces in play in today's environment that make good health extremely challenging for children. While the parents interviewed were disheartened but not surprised by the prediction above, knowing about it made them more proactive in assuring the health of their own children.  They are taking positive steps to protect their children and ensure good health.

Parental responsibility is the key here.  Parents today are forced to gain new knowledge and assume new responsibilities in assuring the best health for their children.  Involved and concerned parents like those at the DOH must not only model healthy behaviors, but they must teach healthy behaviors to their children.  Additionally, they must be proactive in changing policy and the environment to assure the health of all children.

Health Department
City of St. Louis

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