My daughters are six and almost nine years old. In the last few months, I’ve noticed signs of impending maturity, especially in my oldest, and it occurred to me that now is the time to set the foundation for a healthy adulthood, especially as it pertains to women’s health.
I had a conservative mother who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) talk to me about things like bodily changes, menstruation, and other female “conditions,” and didn’t take me to a gynecologist until I was 18.
Knowing what I do now, I would have asked her to make that appointment a lot earlier, as I will for my two girls. I want many things for my daughters, and chief among them, is to be empowered with knowledge.
Here’s what I want them to know about women’s health, especially:
1. Take care of your bones.
I was surprised to learn that 85 percent of adult bone mass is gained by the time a female is 18. After bone density reaches its apex in a women’s mid-20s, it decreases every year. So, if you don’t “make” enough bone as a kid, the risk of osteoporosis goes up as you age. The key to healthy bones as a child? A well-rounded diet and physical activity. As you probably know, calcium and vitamin D are the major bone-builders and so it’s crucial that girls get enough of those nutrients in their diets. In fact, the Institute of Medicine recommends that girls ages 9-18, should take 1,300 mg of calcium a day and 600 mg daily of vitamin D (equal to two cups of milk). Also, encouraging bike rides, walks, and hikes and other activities can establish a habit of exercise that will keep your children healthy into adulthood. I plan to tell my daughters about bone health and what they can do to keep their skeletons growing and strong.
2. Your heart needs love.
Like bone health, heart wellness also begins in childhood. In fact, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute calls for all children between 9 and 11 years old to get a cholesterol test to detect heart risk. A diet high in fat can lead to elevated cholesterol levels that begin the cycle of poor heart function. Of course, genetics plays a part here, so if that’s your legacy, it’s even more important to advocate for cardiovascular health, especially since coronary heart disease is the single leading cause of death for American women, beating out all forms of cancer combined, says the American Heart Association (AHA). The key here is not to scare your kids, but educate and inform them so they feel empowered to make good choices in food and lifestyle now – and later. The main elements of good heart health, like with anything wellness-related are diets high in fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fat. Physical exercise, again, is also of prime importance.
3. Eat healthy.
This is different than the healthy eating I wrote about above. This is about a healthy approach to food and eating. I’ve already heard my eight-year-old complain that she is “fat” and needs to go on a diet. Despite my best efforts to show her that I love my body just how it is and never speak about needing to diet or look “skinny,” my daughter is picking up these signals somewhere. I encourage my girls to think of food as fuel and also, as pleasure. They are absolutely entitled to treats like candy and ice cream, and I won’t deprive them of these things because I believe a “scarcity” mentality could develop, setting them on the road to overeating the wrong things. Guilt, shame, and “you shouldn’ts” are the cornerstones of eating issues. Instead, I tell my daughters the age-old golden rule: everything in moderation. Yes, they can have ice cream for dessert after a healthy dinner; it’s OK to go overboard sometimes (Halloween candy, anyone?); and food should be enjoyed and can be, even if it’s “healthy.” I also tell them that deprivation is not good for them (i.e. not eating to be skinny). Finally, and most important – eat a balanced diet and stay active and your body will settle at its healthiest weight.
4. Don’t forget your brain.
The mind-body connection is a huge component of health for any gender. Stress, negative thinking, and anxiety contribute to any number of health issues including high blood pressure, migraines, and increased infections. Teaching our kids to deal with stress by finding outlets to blow off stream and soothe themselves (i.e., painting, dance, etc.) will pay big dividends as they grow. Women in particular may find it more difficult to speak up when stressed or feel guilty for not being there for everyone all the time, and it’s crucial to show our daughters ways to express frustration and when “enough is enough.” It’s never too early to introduce our kids to mind-body techniques like deep breathing, seeing the positive side of an issue, and taking time out to calm down.
5. You deserve to know.
I want to empower my daughters to seek and find information for anything they want to know. I will explain puberty, menstruation, STDs, and so on with my girls and they should feel comfortable enough to ask me about these sometimes sensitive issues. I will take them to a gynecologist before they are fully women, so they can learn more about their developing bodies. The main takeaway for my girls is: you deserve to know what goes on inside (and outside) your body, so ask anything you want and need to know. If I don’t have the answer, I will show them how to find it. For issues such as the cervical cancer vaccination, birth control (YIKES!), and even pads versus tampons, they will have all the information they need to make the right decision for them, forever and ever, amen.
What do you want your girls to know about women’s health?
Debbie Anderson is a 44-year-old freelance writer and editor who blogs at her slice-of-life site, sandiegomomma.com.