Children—they aren't just miniature adults. Their bodies function differently, absorb medications differently, and process thoughts differently. Why does this matter? Because we see children in the hosptal, in the ED, in outpatient settings, in clinics, in schools, and in their homes. And, more important, children grow up. Starting a normal healthcare regimen early in life enables children to become healthy adults. However, one of the most pressing concerns for pediatric patients today is obesity.
According to the CDC, childhood obesity is on the rise, from 5% in 1974 to almost 17% in 2008. Many factors contribute to this problem, including poor eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle, which have become the norm for many children in the United States. Children learn these habits from family members, as well as their peers. As children age, they carry their poor eating habits and sedentary lifestyles into adulthood, which stay with them throughout their lives and are passed down to their children unless they actively make changes in their day-to-day activities.
Childhood obesity has resulted in the rise of type 2 diabetes—and the complications that go along with it—in the pediatric population. Diseases that mainly affect adults, such as atherosclerotic heart disease, stroke, renal insufficiency, and chronic renal failure, are also on the rise in obese children. Other health issues prevalent in overweight/obese children include hypertension, obstructive sleep apnea, joint problems, gastroesophageal reflux, fatty liver disease, gallstones, and social and psychological problems. If children don't learn to manage their weight in their youth, they often grow up to become obese adults with myriad health problems.
Children are malleable and, in general, want to please the adults in their lives. Healthcare professionals must advocate for all children, working with families to improve their lifestyles. Helping children to make healthier food choices must begin at home. Developing activities to involve the entire family will enable children to get the exercise their growing bodies need. Proper nutrition and bone building exercise are essential for optimum development and growth.
Nurses, no matter where they work, come into contact with children. It's important to know that children require special handling. You must take developmental age into account, making sure to communicate effectively and clearly. Procedures and interventions should always be explained in simple terms to the child. Depending on the child's age, you may want to demonstrate interventions on a doll or parent first. Handling and touching equipment is another way to help the child be less frightened and more accommodating. Developing trust is key when trying to gain the pediatric patient's cooperation.
Understanding the differences in children is important to care for them safely. The family should be included in the child's care, and parent concerns should be taken seriously. Parents can be a valuable tool in assessing and caring for pediatric patients. With the correct knowledge and attitude, treating children and their families can be a wonderful experience.
Editor's note: Join us as we discuss our littlest patients—the last in our three-part special patient population editorial series.