Busy kids can be a challenge—but you can help them thrive. Read on to learn how nutrition and leisure time can affect your child's energy levels.
Children have personalities of their own. Some kids love curling up with a book or spending hours painting. Others are more physical and love running around outside, playing on jungle gyms, or kicking a soccer ball. Some kids seem dreamy. Others are constantly on the go, and these busy kids might seem as though they always need to be stimulated.
The challenges and benefits
Busy kids can be a challenge—they often have problems sitting still, completing a task, or going to sleep at night. Parents may become frustrated, feeling like they don’t have the energy to keep up and worrying that this busyness is abnormal. What parents should realize is that bountiful energy is often a normal characteristic of childhood. The benefits of overactive children are that they’re curious about the world around them, driven and enthusiastic, and often excellent at physical activities.
I’m a naturopathic doctor and children’s health expert. Here are my top six tips to help your busy kid thrive this school year and beyond.
1. Offer opportunities for active outdoor play
Exercise helps boost serotonin and balance cortisol and dopamine levels in the body. These hormones have an important role in controlling mood, behaviour, stress levels, and our sleep-wake cycle. Begin your child’s day with a quick workout consisting of jumping jacks, running up and down the stairs, or briskly walking to school. This will help balance your child’s hormones and prime the brain for learning.
Interestingly enough, research shows that outdoor exercise has more profound effects on overactivity in children when compared to indoor activities. So make sure you’re carving out time for vitamin N! This might be in the form of family hikes or bike rides around your neighbourhood park.
2. Ensure your child gets enough sleep
Sleep deprivation exacerbates hyperactivity, distraction, and restlessness in children. Ideally, school-aged children should be sleeping 10 to 12 hours per night, while adolescents should be sleeping eight to 10 hours per night. Create a consistent calming nighttime routine that includes time away from computers, tablets, and TVs. Incorporate warm Epsom salt baths, reading time, or journalling sessions to help calm your child’s nervous system and promote restful sleep.
3. Set limits on screen time
Screens from tablets, smartphones, computers, and TVs are stimulating to the brain, and they worsen symptoms of overactivity in a dose-dependent fashion. The issue with excessive screen time is that it takes away from creative play, personal interactions in the real world, and physical activity, all of which are needed to calm an overactive brain. Moreover, screen time before bed is known to cause sleep issues, as it interferes with the natural production of melatonin.
The Canadian Paediatric Society discourages screen-based activities in children younger than two years old. It recommends a limit of one hour of educational screen time per day for toddlers from two to four years old. For children age five and older, the recommend limit is two hours of recreational screen time per day. These guidelines are consistent with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendations, which some experts view as being slightly too strict and unrealistic for parents.
Psychologist and researcher Larry Rosen is one expert who believes these guidelines are too strict. Rosen recommends that children use technology at a ratio of one to five, meaning that if a child uses a tablet for 30 minutes, this should be balanced with 150 minutes of nonscreen activity to allow for other communicative or mind-wandering activities.
Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician and director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, has also recommended that the current guidelines be revised. Moreover, he argues that interactive or educational media is acceptable for children under the age of two but should be limited to 30 to 60 minutes per day.
I foresee that the current media guidelines will soon change. At the moment, I recommend a more balanced approach to screen time, which is consistent with Rosen’s and Christakis’s recommendations.
4. Avoid processed and sugary foods
It’s well known that excessive sugar intake and junk food diets are linked with hyperactivity and inattention. I recommend limiting sweets to special occasions, such as birthday parties, and following a whole foods Mediterranean-style diet on a day-to-day basis. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes
- enjoying plenty of vegetables and fruit
- incorporating good fats such as nuts, seeds, and olive oil
- eating two to three servings of fish per week
- eating one to two servings of poultry per week, if desired
- limiting red meat to a few times per month
- eating unrefined whole grains and legumes
- consuming dairy in moderation
5. Nourish your child’s interests
Active or energized kids are often passionate, driven, and strong willed. Talk to your child about what activities he likes, and enrol him in a class that reflects these interests. Once he’s in an environment that he enjoys, he’ll flourish and excel.
6. Establish routine around transitions
For instance, make it a habit to give your child a 10-minute warning before leaving for school in the morning. Another example is to carve out an hour before bedtime for nonstimulating activities such as reading, journalling, or having a bath. When your child has a set routine, she knows what to expect and will be more likely to follow through with these tasks in a calm, relaxed manner.
When should my child be assessed for ADHD?
The hallmark traits of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. These may present in the following ways.
- seeming very forgetful
- listening poorly when spoken to
- lacking attention to details at school
- losing things
- talking out of turn or interrupting
- running or climbing excessively
- fidgeting frequently
For a child to qualify for the ADHD diagnosis, these symptoms must have persisted for six months, be present in more than one setting, and cause a degree of dysfunction for the child. Some of these traits must also have been present before age seven.
Most experts agree that an accurate diagnosis cannot be made until the child is six or seven years old, as many of these behaviours are normal characteristics of preschoolers and kindergarteners. But if you suspect that your child has these characteristics, it doesn’t hurt to get a full evaluation from your health care practitioner before the child is six years old.
What supplements are beneficial in ADHD?
If your little one qualifies for an ADHD diagnosis, these nutritional supplements may be helpful. Make sure to talk to your health care practitioner for dosage recommendations based on your child’s age and weight.
- melatonin in cases of ADHD-associated insomnia
- vitamin B6 combined with magnesium
- zinc and iron, if blood tests show deficiencies
- omega-3 fish oil
Can food sensitivities cause ADHD?
In some cases, delayed food sensitivities or intolerances can worsen ADHD symptoms. Talk to your naturopathic doctor about elimination and challenge diets or IgG food sensitivity testing.