Raising a Healthy Child with Diabetes: Tips Every Parent Needs!

May 31, 2024

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Did you know that more than 200,000 children and adolescents in the United States have diabetes? That’s about 1 in every 400 kids. If your child has recently been diagnosed with diabetes, you may be feeling overwhelmed, scared, and unsure of what to do next. But here’s the good news: with the right knowledge, support, and care, your child can live a full, healthy life with diabetes.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about raising a child with diabetes, from recognizing the signs and symptoms to managing their dietexerciseschool life, and emotional well-being. Whether your child has type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes, these tips and strategies will empower you to be the best advocate for your child’s health. Let’s get started!

Understanding Diabetes in Children

Before we dive into the specifics of managing childhood diabetes, it’s important to have a basic understanding of what diabetes is and how it affects the body. Diabetes is a chronic condition that impacts how the body processes glucose, or sugar, for energy.

In a healthy body, the pancreas produces a hormone called insulin, which helps glucose enter the cells to be used for fuel. But in diabetes, either the pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin (type 1 diabetes) or the body can’t use the insulin properly (type 2 diabetes). As a result, glucose builds up in the bloodstream, leading to high blood sugar levels.

Type 1 Diabetes in Children

Type 1 diabetes, previously known as juvenile diabetes, is an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. This means the body can no longer make insulin, and glucose can’t enter the cells for energy.

Type 1 diabetes accounts for the majority of diabetes cases in children and adolescents. It can develop at any age but is most commonly diagnosed between ages 4-6 and 10-14. The exact cause is unknown, but researchers believe a combination of genetic and environmental factors may trigger the autoimmune response.

Type 2 Diabetes in Children

Type 2 diabetes, which used to be called adult-onset diabetes, is becoming more common in children and teens due to the rise in childhood obesity. In type 2 diabetes, the body still makes insulin but becomes resistant to its effects, leading to high blood sugar levels.

Risk factors for type 2 diabetes in children include:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Having a family history of type 2 diabetes
  • Being physically inactive
  • Being of certain racial or ethnic groups (African American, Hispanic, Native American, Asian American, Pacific Islander)
  • Going through puberty, which can cause insulin resistance

While type 2 diabetes is often preventable with lifestyle changes, once a child is diagnosed, they will need ongoing treatment and management to keep their blood sugar levels in a healthy range.

Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Diabetes

One of the most important things you can do as a parent is to be aware of the signs and symptoms of diabetes in children. Catching diabetes early and starting treatment right away can help prevent serious complications down the road.

The most common symptoms of diabetes in children include:

  • Increased thirst: Your child may suddenly start drinking much more than usual and feel thirsty all the time.
  • Frequent urination: As the body tries to get rid of excess sugar in the bloodstream, your child may need to pee more often, including during the night. Babies may have heavier, wetter diapers.
  • Bedwetting: A previously toilet-trained child may start wetting the bed at night due to high blood sugar levels.
  • Extreme hunger: Despite eating regular meals and snacks, your child may feel hungry all the time as their body can’t use the glucose for energy.
  • Unintended weight loss: Even though your child is eating more, they may lose weight or look thinner than usual as their body breaks down fat and muscle for fuel.
  • Fatigue: High blood sugar levels can make your child feel tired, weak, and irritable.
  • Blurred vision: Excess sugar in the bloodstream can cause the lens of the eye to swell, leading to blurry vision.
  • Slow-healing wounds: Cuts, scrapes, and bruises may take longer to heal than normal due to poor circulation.
  • Yeast infections: Girls with diabetes may develop frequent yeast infections or diaper rash.
  • Fruity-smelling breath: If your child’s diabetes is uncontrolled, their breath may have a sweet, fruity smell due to a buildup of ketones in the body.

If you notice any of these symptoms in your child, don’t wait – make an appointment with their pediatrician right away. A simple blood test can diagnose diabetes and allow your child to start treatment as soon as possible.

When to Seek Emergency Care

In some cases, diabetes symptoms can come on very suddenly and severely, requiring immediate medical attention. Seek emergency care if your child:

  • Is breathing rapidly or has trouble breathing
  • Has severe abdominal pain, nausea, or vomiting
  • Is confused, dizzy, or unconscious
  • Has a fruity smell to their breath (a sign of diabetic ketoacidosis)

These symptoms can be a sign of diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), a life-threatening complication that occurs when the body doesn’t have enough insulin and starts breaking down fat for energy, producing acids called ketones. DKA requires emergency treatment with insulin and fluids to prevent coma or death.

Managing Your Child’s Diabetes: The Basics

Once your child is diagnosed with diabetes, you’ll work closely with their healthcare team to create a personalized management plan. This plan will include:

  • Blood sugar monitoring: Checking your child’s blood sugar levels regularly using a glucose meter or continuous glucose monitor (CGM) to ensure they stay within a healthy range.
  • Insulin therapy: Giving your child insulin injections or using an insulin pump to replace the insulin their body can’t make (type 1 diabetes) or to help their body use insulin more effectively (type 2 diabetes).
  • Healthy eating: Following a balanced meal plan that includes a variety of nutrient-dense foods and controls portion sizes to keep blood sugar levels stable.
  • Regular physical activity: Encouraging your child to be active every day to help their body use insulin more efficiently, manage their weight, and improve their overall health.
  • Stress management: Teaching your child healthy coping strategies to deal with the emotional challenges of living with a chronic condition.

Your child’s diabetes care team, which may include a pediatric endocrinologist, diabetes educator, registered dietitian, and mental health professional, will work with you to tailor this plan to your child’s individual needs and lifestyle. They’ll also provide education and support to help you and your child learn how to manage diabetes at home and in school.

Blood Sugar Monitoring

Checking your child’s blood sugar levels is one of the most important parts of managing their diabetes. It helps you see how their body responds to food, physical activity, stress, illness, and insulin doses so you can make adjustments as needed.

Most children with diabetes will need to check their blood sugar several times a day using a glucose meter. This involves pricking their finger with a small needle (lancet) to get a drop of blood, then placing the blood on a test strip inserted into the meter. The meter will display their blood sugar level within seconds.

Your child’s healthcare team will tell you what their target blood sugar range should be and when to check throughout the day (usually before meals, at bedtime, and sometimes overnight). They’ll also teach you what to do if your child’s blood sugar is too high (hyperglycemia) or too low (hypoglycemia).

Some children may be able to use a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), a small sensor worn on the body that measures blood sugar levels every few minutes and sends the data to a receiver or smartphone app. CGMs can help you see trends and patterns in your child’s blood sugar levels and alert you if they’re getting too high or low.

Insulin Therapy

All children with type 1 diabetes and some children with type 2 diabetes will need to take insulin every day to manage their blood sugar levels. Insulin is a hormone that helps glucose enter the cells to be used for energy. There are several types of insulin and ways to take it:

  • Rapid-acting insulin: Starts working within 15 minutes and lasts for 2-4 hours. Given before meals to cover the rise in blood sugar from eating.
  • Short-acting insulin: Starts working within 30 minutes and lasts 3-6 hours. Also given before meals.
  • Intermediate-acting insulin: Starts working within 2-4 hours and lasts 12-18 hours. Given once or twice a day to provide background insulin.
  • Long-acting insulin: Starts working within 2 hours and lasts 24 hours or longer. Given once a day to provide steady insulin levels.

Insulin can be given by:

  • Syringe and needle: Drawing up insulin from a vial and injecting it under the skin.
  • Insulin pen: A pre-filled, dial-a-dose device that looks like a large pen and is injected under the skin.
  • Insulin pump: A small, computerized device that delivers insulin through a tiny tube (catheter) inserted under the skin. The pump can be programmed to give small doses of insulin continuously (basal rate) and larger doses at mealtimes (bolus).

Your child’s diabetes care team will work with you to determine the best type(s) of insulin and delivery method for your child based on their age, weight, activity level, and other factors. They’ll also teach you how to calculate insulin doses based on your child’s blood sugar levels and the amount of carbohydrates they eat.

It’s important to store insulin properly (usually in the refrigerator) and to rotate injection sites to prevent lumps or scar tissue from forming. Your child may feel anxious or scared about getting shots at first, but with practice and positive reinforcement, most children adapt well to insulin therapy.

Creating a Healthy Eating Plan

What your child eats has a big impact on their blood sugar levels and overall health. A healthy diet for children with diabetes focuses on whole, minimally processed foods that are high in nutrients and fiber and low in added sugars and unhealthy fats.

The key components of a diabetes meal plan include:

  • Carbohydrates: Carbs are the main nutrient that raises blood sugar levels. They’re found in grains, starchy vegetables, fruits, milk and yogurt, and sweets. Children with diabetes don’t have to avoid carbs, but they do need to control their portions and spread them evenly throughout the day to prevent blood sugar spikes. Choosing complex carbs like whole grains, legumes, and vegetables over simple carbs like white bread, juice, and candy can also help keep blood sugar stable.
  • Protein: Protein foods like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, and seeds are important for growth and development. They have little effect on blood sugar but can help your child feel full and satisfied after meals.
  • Fats: Healthy fats like olive oil, avocados, nuts, and fatty fish provide essential nutrients and help your child absorb vitamins. But too much saturated and trans fat (found in fried foods, red meat, full-fat dairy, and processed snacks) can increase your child’s risk of heart disease, so it’s important to choose healthy fats most of the time.

Your child’s registered dietitian can help you create a personalized meal plan that takes into account their age, weight goals, food preferences, and insulin regimen. They may use one of these approaches:

  • Carbohydrate counting: Keeping track of how many grams of carbs your child eats at each meal and snack and matching their insulin dose to the amount of carbs consumed.
  • Glycemic index: Choosing foods that have a low glycemic index (GI), meaning they cause a slower, smaller rise in blood sugar than high-GI foods.
  • Plate method: Filling half of your child’s plate with non-starchy vegetables, a quarter with lean protein, and a quarter with whole grains or starchy vegetables at each meal.

No matter which approach you use, it’s important to:

  • Offer a variety of nutrient-dense foods from all the food groups
  • Control portion sizes using measuring cups or a food scale
  • Read nutrition labels to check for carbs, fiber, fat, and added sugars
  • Limit sugary drinks and snacks
  • Have healthy snacks on hand for between meals and before/after physical activity
  • Be a good role model by eating healthy foods yourself

With a little planning and creativity, your child can enjoy delicious, satisfying meals and snacks that keep their blood sugar in check and support their overall health.

Dealing with Picky Eating

Many children with diabetes are picky eaters, which can make meal planning a challenge. Some tips for dealing with picky eating include:

  • Involving your child in meal planning and preparation
  • Offering a variety of foods and letting them choose what to eat
  • Making food fun with colorful plates, cute shapes, or dips
  • Praising your child when they try new foods
  • Not forcing them to clean their plate or eat foods they truly dislike
  • Having a “backup” meal option that’s easy to prepare if they refuse the main meal

Remember, it can take many exposures to a new food before a child will accept it, so don’t give up! Keep offering healthy options and modeling good eating habits yourself.

Encouraging Regular Physical Activity

Exercise is an important part of managing diabetes in children. When kids are active, their bodies are better able to use insulin and control blood sugar levels. Exercise also helps with weight management, stress relief, and overall health.

The American Diabetes Association recommends that children with diabetes get at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity every day. This can include:

  • Playing outside with friends
  • Riding a bike or scooter
  • Swimming or playing in the pool
  • Dancing to music
  • Jumping rope
  • Playing team sports like soccer, basketball, or baseball
  • Doing individual activities like martial arts, gymnastics, or yoga

The key is to find activities that your child enjoys and can do regularly. Encourage them to invite friends over to play, sign up for sports teams or classes, and be active as a family by going on walks, hikes, or bike rides together.

Preparing for Physical Activity

Before your child exercises, it’s important to:

  • Check their blood sugar level. If it’s below 100 mg/dL, give them a small snack containing 15-30 grams of carbs before starting the activity. If it’s above 250 mg/dL, check for ketones and give them water to drink.
  • Make sure they have quick-acting carbs like glucose tablets, juice, or candy on hand in case their blood sugar drops during the activity.
  • Have them wear a medical ID bracelet or necklace that says they have diabetes.
  • Inform coaches, teachers, or other adults in charge of the activity about your child’s diabetes and how to recognize and treat low blood sugar.

During the activity, your child should:

  • Check their blood sugar every 30-60 minutes if the activity lasts longer than an hour.
  • Take breaks as needed to eat snacks, drink water, and check blood sugar.
  • Stop the activity if they feel shaky, dizzy, or confused (signs of low blood sugar).

After the activity, check your child’s blood sugar again and give them a snack if needed. Keep an eye on their levels for several hours afterwards, as exercise can cause delayed low blood sugar.

With a little preparation and monitoring, your child can safely enjoy all the benefits of regular physical activity while managing their diabetes.

Managing Diabetes at School

Diabetes shouldn’t keep your child from participating fully in school activities and events. But it does require some extra planning and communication with school staff to ensure your child’s safety and well-being.

Developing a Diabetes Care Plan

Before the school year starts or as soon as your child is diagnosed, schedule a meeting with the school nurse, teachers, principal, and other key staff members to develop a written diabetes care plan. This plan should include:

  • Your child’s target blood sugar range and how often to check levels
  • Insulin dosing instructions (if applicable)
  • Meal and snack times and carb counts
  • How to recognize and treat low/high blood sugar
  • Emergency contact information for parents and healthcare providers
  • Special accommodations for field trips, parties, or other events

The school nurse can help coordinate your child’s care and train other staff members on how to manage diabetes. They can also help ensure that your child has access to diabetes supplies and a private place to check blood sugar and administer insulin.

Communicating with Teachers

It’s important to educate your child’s teachers about diabetes and how it may affect their behavior and learning. For example, low blood sugar can cause symptoms like shakiness, dizziness, and confusion that may be mistaken for misbehavior. High blood sugar can cause frequent bathroom breaks, thirst, and fatigue.

Make sure teachers know the signs and symptoms of low/high blood sugar and how to respond. Provide them with a copy of your child’s diabetes care plan and emergency supplies like glucose tablets or juice boxes to keep in the classroom.

Encourage teachers to communicate with you regularly about any concerns or changes in your child’s behavior or academic performance. Work together as a team to create a supportive learning environment that meets your child’s individual needs.

Dealing with Special Situations

There may be times when your child’s usual diabetes routine needs to be adjusted for special events or situations at school. For example:

  • Field trips: Pack extra diabetes supplies and snacks, and make sure the teacher or another adult chaperone knows how to manage your child’s diabetes. If the trip involves a lot of walking or physical activity, you may need to adjust your child’s insulin dose or meal plan.
  • Classroom parties: Provide alternative treat options for your child or send in a special snack they can enjoy. Make sure the teacher knows how to count carbs in party foods and adjust insulin doses if needed.
  • Standardized testing: If your child needs extra breaks to check blood sugar or eat snacks during long tests, work with the school to develop an accommodation plan. This may include a separate testing room, extra time, or scheduled breaks.
  • Sick days: If your child is ill and needs to stay home from school, make sure to monitor their blood sugar closely and adjust their insulin and meal plan as needed. Keep the school informed of any changes in your child’s health status.

By working closely with your child’s school team and healthcare providers, you can help ensure that your child’s diabetes is well-managed and doesn’t interfere with their education or social development.

Providing Emotional Support

Living with diabetes can be stressful and overwhelming for children and families alike. It’s normal for kids to feel angry, sad, scared, or frustrated about having to manage a chronic condition. They may worry about being different from their peers, feel self-conscious about checking blood sugar or taking insulin in public, or rebel against their treatment plan.

As a parent, one of the most important things you can do is provide emotional support and understanding. Let your child know that it’s okay to have feelings about diabetes and encourage them to express those feelings in healthy ways. Some tips for providing emotional support include:

  • Listening without judgment: When your child wants to talk about diabetes, give them your full attention and listen without interrupting or trying to fix everything. Validate their feelings and show empathy.
  • Encouraging open communication: Make it clear that your child can come to you with any questions, concerns, or fears about diabetes. Be honest and age-appropriate in your answers.
  • Focusing on strengths: Praise your child for their efforts in managing diabetes, no matter how small. Celebrate their successes and help them see their own resilience and capability.
  • Modeling positive coping: Take care of your own emotional health and model healthy coping strategies like deep breathing, exercise, journaling, or talking to a friend. Admit when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed and show your child how you handle those feelings.
  • Seeking support: Connect with other families living with diabetes through local support groups, online forums, or diabetes camps. Knowing they’re not alone can be very comforting for kids.
  • Encouraging normal activities: Help your child see that diabetes doesn’t have to limit their life. Encourage them to pursue their interests, hang out with friends, and participate in regular childhood activities.

If your child seems to be struggling emotionally or exhibiting signs of depression, anxiety, or disordered eating, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. A mental health provider who specializes in working with children with chronic conditions can provide additional support and coping strategies.

Remember, diabetes management is a marathon, not a sprint. There will be ups and downs along the way, but with love, patience, and a positive attitude, you can help your child thrive and live their best life with diabetes.

Using Technology to Manage Diabetes

Advances in diabetes technology have made it easier than ever for children and families to manage the condition. From smartphone apps to wearable devices, there are many tools available to help you track blood sugar levels, calculate insulin doses, and stay on top of diabetes care tasks.

Some popular diabetes technologies include:

  • Continuous glucose monitors (CGMs): These wearable sensors measure blood sugar levels every few minutes and send the data wirelessly to a receiver or smartphone app. CGMs can help you see trends and patterns in your child’s blood sugar levels and alert you if they’re getting too high or low.
  • Insulin pumps: These small, computerized devices deliver insulin through a tiny tube inserted under the skin. Pumps can be programmed to give small doses of insulin continuously (basal rate) and larger doses at mealtimes (bolus). Some newer pumps can even integrate with CGMs to adjust insulin doses automatically based on blood sugar levels.
  • Smart insulin pens: These pens use Bluetooth technology to record insulin doses and send the data to a smartphone app. They can help you keep track of when and how much insulin your child has taken and provide reminders for missed doses.
  • Diabetes management apps: There are many apps available for tracking blood sugar levels, carbs, physical activity, and other diabetes data. Some popular ones include mySugr, One Drop, and Glucose Buddy. Many of these apps also offer educational resources, recipes, and community support.
  • Telemedicine: Some diabetes clinics now offer virtual visits with healthcare providers via video chat or phone. This can be especially helpful for families who live far from a pediatric diabetes specialist or have trouble getting to regular appointments.

While technology can be a great tool for managing diabetes, it’s important to remember that it’s not a substitute for regular communication with your child’s healthcare team. Make sure to discuss any new devices or apps with your child’s doctor or diabetes educator before using them, and always follow their guidance on how to interpret and act on the data.

It’s also important to teach your child how to use diabetes technology safely and responsibly. Make sure they understand how to properly care for devices, troubleshoot common problems, and seek help if needed. As they get older, gradually give them more responsibility for using technology independently while still providing supervision and support.

Educating Your Child About Diabetes

One of the most important things you can do as a parent of a child with diabetes is to educate them about their condition in an age-appropriate way. The more your child understands about diabetes and how to manage it, the more empowered and confident they’ll feel in taking care of themselves.

Some tips for educating your child about diabetes include:

  • Starting early: Begin teaching your child about diabetes as soon as they’re diagnosed, using simple language and concepts. For example, you might explain that their body needs help using the food they eat for energy and that insulin is like a key that unlocks the door to let the energy in.
  • Using visual aids: Pictures, videos, and demonstrations can help make diabetes concepts more concrete and easier to understand. For example, you might use a doll or stuffed animal to show how to check blood sugar or give an insulin injection.
  • Encouraging questions: Make it clear that no question is too silly or too small when it comes to diabetes. Encourage your child to ask about anything they don’t understand or are curious about.
  • Involving them in care tasks: As your child gets older, give them more responsibility for diabetes care tasks like checking blood sugar, counting carbs, and giving insulin. Supervise and support them as needed, but let them take the lead when they’re ready.
  • Attending diabetes education classes: Many hospitals and clinics offer diabetes education classes for children and families. These classes can provide more in-depth information about diabetes management and give your child a chance to meet other kids living with the condition.
  • Reading diabetes books together: There are many great books available for children and teens with diabetes. Reading these books together can help your child feel less alone and provide opportunities for discussion and learning.
  • Encouraging self-advocacy: Teach your child how to speak up for their needs and communicate effectively with teachers, coaches, and other adults about their diabetes. Role-play different scenarios and give them practice advocating for themselves.

Remember, diabetes education is an ongoing process. As your child grows and develops, their understanding of diabetes will change and evolve. Keep the lines of communication open and be ready to answer new questions and provide more advanced information as needed.

It’s also important to educate your child’s siblings, friends, and other family members about diabetes. Help them understand what diabetes is, how it’s managed, and how they can support your child. Encourage open and honest communication within the family and create a supportive environment where everyone feels heard and valued.

Conclusion

Raising a child with diabetes can be challenging, but it’s also an opportunity to help your child develop resilience, responsibility, and self-confidence. By working closely with your child’s healthcare team, creating a supportive home and school environment, and empowering your child to take an active role in their own care, you can help them thrive and live a full, healthy life with diabetes.

Remember, you’re not alone in this journey. Reach out to other families living with diabetes, connect with diabetes organizations and resources, and don’t hesitate to ask for help when you need it. With love, patience, and a positive attitude, you can be the best advocate and supporter for your child with diabetes.

Key Takeaways

  • Diabetes is a chronic condition that affects how the body uses glucose (sugar) for energy. The two main types of diabetes in children are type 1 and type 2.
  • Common symptoms of diabetes in children include increased thirst, frequent urination, bedwetting, extreme hunger, unintended weight loss, fatigue, and blurred vision.
  • Managing diabetes involves checking blood sugar levels regularly, taking insulin or other medications as prescribed, following a healthy eating plan, getting regular physical activity, and managing stress.
  • Creating a diabetes care plan with your child’s school team is important for ensuring their safety and well-being at school.
  • Providing emotional support, encouraging open communication, and seeking professional help if needed can help your child cope with the challenges of living with diabetes.
  • Advances in diabetes technology, such as continuous glucose monitors, insulin pumps, and diabetes management apps, can make it easier to manage the condition.
  • Educating your child about diabetes in an age-appropriate way can help them feel more empowered and confident in managing their own care.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes in children?

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition in which the body stops producing insulin, while type 2 diabetes is a metabolic disorder in which the body becomes resistant to insulin or doesn’t produce enough. Type 1 is more common in children and requires insulin therapy, while type 2 is often associated with obesity and may be managed with lifestyle changes and/or oral medications.

Can children with diabetes eat sweets?

Yes, children with diabetes can eat sweets in moderation as part of a balanced meal plan. The key is to count the carbs in the sweet and adjust insulin doses accordingly. It’s also important to choose sweets that are portion-controlled and to pair them with protein or fiber to help stabilize blood sugar levels.

How often should my child check their blood sugar?

The frequency of blood sugar checks depends on your child’s individual diabetes management plan. In general, most children with type 1 diabetes will need to check at least 4 times a day (before meals and at bedtime), while those with type 2 may need to check less often. Your child’s healthcare team will provide specific guidance based on their needs.

What should I do if my child’s blood sugar is too high or too low?

If your child’s blood sugar is too high (usually above 250 mg/dL), give them water to drink and have them check for ketones in their urine. If ketones are present, call your child’s doctor for guidance. If blood sugar is too low (usually below 70 mg/dL), give your child a fast-acting source of glucose like juice, glucose tablets, or candy, and recheck their blood sugar after 15 minutes. If symptoms persist or your child loses consciousness, call 911.

Can my child play sports with diabetes?

Yes, physical activity is an important part of diabetes management and overall health. However, it’s important to take some precautions, such as checking blood sugar before and after activity, having fast-acting carbs on hand, and wearing a medical ID. Work with your child’s healthcare team to develop an individualized plan for safe sports participation.

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