In the Spotlight: Teaching Kids to Recognize Their Body Signals

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It's a big moment in the life of any parent caring for a child with type 1 diabetes: Your child recognizes signs of low blood sugar on his own and comes to tell you about it. Suddenly, events like school trips, sleepovers and away soccer games -- times that you're not there to keep an eagle eye out for symptoms -- seem less scary. Somebody else is always on the scene who is increasingly aware of what off-kilter blood sugar levels feel like: Your child!

The good news is that this may happen sooner than you think.

"Kids know their body better than anybody, so they quickly can become an active partner in recognizing symptoms," says Martha Upchurch, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Vanderbilt Eskind Diabetes Clinic in Nashville.

"I feel funny."
Work with your diabetes management team to start talking to your child as soon as he's able about recognizing symptoms of highs and lows. Especially when a child is very young or newly diagnosed, it may help to encourage him to talk about anything at all unusual that's going on in his body.

"We do have young kids that are able to tell their parents not necessarily that they have low blood sugar, but that 'My head hurts' or 'My tummy hurts,' so they know something's off," says Upchurch.

Diane Geils of Saratoga Springs, NY, says her son, Justin, "started communicating with me right away. I knew immediately he was not feeling good. He would say things like, 'My stomach hurts,' and 'I feel funny.'"

Some diabetes educators use cartoons or videos of children experiencing low blood sugar to show a range of common symptoms, from sweating or nausea to headache to excessive thirst or fatigue.

What just happened?
When your child has tested high or low, look at her to see if you spot anything unusual. Then speak to her as soon as possible after the incident and ask her to remember how she felt, Upchurch suggests.

Keep in mind that symptoms may vary from child to child and may change as the child grows older. "It's never black and white," Upchurch says. "It depends on the individual." Often a change in behavior may signal a high or low blood sugar that prompts the need for checking blood glucose. "'My child suddenly gets nasty,' is what I hear a lot," says Cynthia Van Teyens, a pediatric diabetes nurse educator at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, CA.

Emphasize the positive
Ask your child to explore what it feels like when blood sugars are normal, and how great she can feel when eating well and exercising.

"Even when it comes to testing their own blood sugar or giving their own shots, if they see one of their peers doing it, they'll be more comfortable doing it," Upchurch says. Giving kids an opportunity to connect with their peers at a diabetes camp or other group activity can also help them learn by example or by comparing symptoms, she says.

Consult your diabetes management team about how to best work with your child to recognize the signals his or her body is sending.

Disclaimer: The experiences and suggestions recounted in these articles are not intended as medical advice, and they are not necessarily the "typical" experiences of families with a child who has type 1 diabetes. These situations are unique to the families depicted. Families should check with their healthcare professionals regarding the treatment of type 1 diabetes and the frequency of blood glucose monitoring.

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