Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Health, Wellness, and the Importance of Childhood Illness, by Jaimmie Stugard

There are many times that parents must strike a balance between what they know is best for their child, what is most convenient for the family and societal demands. When our children are ill, this balancing act can feel like tightrope walking in roller skates. Having an ill child can be an
emotional ordeal, an inconvenience or a bonding experience. Most often it is all of these and more at the same time. While we may seek to protect our children with preventive medicine such as vaccines and vitamins and medicine that is intended to treat their illness (fever-reducers, cough medicine), we may never eradicate childhood illness altogether. Why must our little ones become ill, we wonder?

While each illness serves its own function, it can be noted that mild and moderate childhood illnesses seem to strengthen the body. I have known some children who seemed to catch every virus that was going around when they were very young, but were rarely sick as they got older. I once knew a little girl who got whooping-cough around the age of 3. The cough seemed to drag on forever, but when she recovered she seemed more vibrant and healthy than before she got sick. For the next seven years, she rarely caught even a minor cold. Many parents have noted that a childhood illness is the precursor to a developmental milestone. A fever or flu may be followed by a baby's first steps or a language boom.

Yet, one of the most pressing matters for modern parents is sick child care. Many of us feel that we cannot miss work to care for our sick children. For some, there is a very real risk of disciplinary action. Some employers may even refer you to a local hospital's sick child day care. Many "baby guides" for expecting parents put sick child care at the top of the list for what they should be looking for in a day care. I can't imagine how putting a sick baby in a room filled with many other sick children and exposing his already weakened system to a wide variety of illnesses would define "quality care."

Recently, my son got a stomach bug and I knew that he really needed a day of R and R. Our family is fortunate to have a grandparent nearby who is a nurse and has a very strong relationship with her grandchildren. Since grandma was available and mama and papa needed to go to work, I brought him to granny's first thing in the morning. "But, you are my mom and it is your job to take care of me when I am sick," he protested. While I knew that a day at home with mom would be the best remedy, I felt blessed to be able to leave him in good care trusting that he would spend his day sipping tea, eating toast and reading books with grandma.

It seems that our hurried, money-minded culture allows no room for illness or recovery. During cold and flu season, the television is ambushed with ads for medicines that will get you back on your feet, skipping all the way back to your cubicle. While it is one thing for an adult to wear down their body this way, it is another matter altogether when we inflict this attitude upon our children and their growing bodies. Shouldn't we allow our children to be sick and nurture and care for them until they are well? Don't we all have tender memories or our parents nursing us to health with compresses, baths, ointments and affection?

One inclination is to medicate the child to make him (and us) more comfortable. For example, well meaning parents sometimes give their children a fever-reducer out of fear that the fever may damage their child's organism. Yet, the fever in itself is a healthy immune response to illness. The elevated body temperature is nature's mechanism for fighting off illness and infection. A feverish person may appear lethargic externally, because their biological forces are focused on internal healing. If the fever is artificially reduced, the child will have a false sense of wellness and will no longer be in the restful state that allows his body to focus his energy internally. The illness may be drawn out or become more severe because the fever was not allowed to do its job, so to speak.

One helpful piece of advice that our pediatrician gave was to use a fever reducer when the temperature was alarmingly high (at least 103 degrees). The medicine should reduce the fever temporarily. When the medicine wears off, the temperature will most likely begin to rise again. If the medicine does not reduce the fever, it could be a sign of something more severe and medical attention should be sought immediately. A fever can be a reaction to many types of illness. In every case, the child's behavior and appearance is the strongest indicator of how to treat the underlying illness. If we mask a fever with antipyretics (fever reducers), we may not be able to accurate assess the situation. Fear and anxiety are never helpful in these situations, so always call your pediatrician if you have questions about your child's illness. A feverish child ought to rest at home until their fever has subsided (unmedicated) for 24 hours. Too much stimulation without adequate rest may result in relapse.

While we may not be able to completely avert sickness, there are some simple things we can do to maintain health. A strong daily rhythm that revolves around eating nutritious food, sleeping and waking supports growing bodies. As does ample free play and movement, outdoor play, fresh air and connection to nature. Warm clothing and bedding made of natural, breathable materials protects the child from illness and is as essential as proper hygiene. Further protection is offered when we prevent over stimulation by reducing television, video games, loud noises, harsh lights, sugary, processed foods and overwhelming activities (there's a reason the carnival only comes once a year) . Of course, loving, consistent, nurturing relationships are the cornerstone of a sense of well-being.

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