INTRODUCTION TO CHILDREN’S HEALTH
Children’s health, or pediatrics, focuses on the well-being of children from conception through adolescence. It is vitally concerned with all aspects of children’s growth and development and with the unique opportunity that each child has to achieve their full potential as a healthy adult.
Children’s health was once a subset of adult medicine. In the 19th and early 20th century, people recognized pediatrics as a medical specialty because of the gradual awareness that the health problems of children are different from those of adults. It was also recognized that a child’s response to illness, medications, and the environment depends upon the age of the child.
There are many aspects to children’s health. Any organization of these aspects of child health is necessarily arbitrary. For example, the topics could be presented in alphabetical order. However, it seems most logical to start with the factors that determine a child’s healthy growth and development.
CHILDREN’S GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT
A healthy child’s development actually begins before conception with the parents’ health and their genetic legacy. It continues on to conception and through the prenatal period. During this time, there is naturally considerable overlap between pediatric concerns for the fetus and obstetrical concerns for the mother.
Once the baby is delivered, there are new and important matters to address, such as breastfeeding, newborn screening tests, and sleeping safety. All too soon, there are health care appointments to be kept for well-baby checkups and vaccinations. These are followed by other issues such as when and how to introduce solid foods, toilet training, and when to see the dentist.
The field of pediatrics recognizes classic stages in growth and development, but these are not absolute since a child’s growth and development constitute a continuum. A baby changes at an astonishing rate during the newborn period and early infancy. Before you know it, the baby becomes a toddler, next a child and, after a little more than a decade, enters adolescence. It is a busy, challenging period for both child and parent.
Unfortunately, even the healthiest baby can get sick. It is worth knowing the signs and symptoms of the common childhood illnesses as well as the treatment and prevention of these illnesses. There are a number of common childhood conditions such as ear infections and tonsillitis which may be unavoidable. But children are also subject to other preventable diseases such as the serious and potentially lethal infectious diseases prevented by immunizations and dental caries (tooth decay), which can be prevented by ongoing oral care and fluoride treatments.
Children may be born with health problems. For example, a cleft lip or palate is evident at birth. But some equally common birth defects, such as some heart malformations, may not be immediately apparent. Birth defects of all kinds are a consequential concern for children and their parents.
It may not be possible to prevent a specific birth defect or an illness, but it should be possible to protect a child from an accident and injury, such as from common cuts, burns, and accidental poisoning. Considerable progress has been made in the safety arena (such as in the rapid recall of dangerous toys). The mandated uses of car seats, safety belts, bicycle helmets, tamper-resistant closure systems, and the establishment of national and regional poison control centers are also examples of advances in child safety.
But other major areas of safety concern remain — such as the all-too-frequent drownings of children in swimming pools, their accidental swallowing of household cleaning products, their being burned by a hot stove or heater, or being accidentally shot with a firearm. The list is endless. All of us must exercise continued vigilance and make every effort to be sure that a child’s environment is made as safe as it possibly can be.