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We hear a lot about how the U.S. health care system is broken or unsustainable or hard to navigate. It can be overwhelming. So what’s a parent to do? Stick to the basics, and you can make sure your child is healthy and safe without breaking the bank.

Health Insurance

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, the old saying goes—and good health for children begins in the womb.

A pregnant woman needs prenatal care from the moment she first learns that she is pregnant. Ideally, you should have health insurance from your employer or your spouse’s employer. Students who are on their parent’s plan should see if they cover prenatal and maternity coverage or offer additional riders. Students on a plan offered by their college or university should talk to their counselor.

Poor women qualify for Medicaid.

The Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP) provides free or low-cost health insurance for children up to age 18 as well as for pregnant women. The program is designed for families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford insurance on their own. Requirements and provisions vary by state. Check insurekidsnow.gov for links to your state’s SCHIP resources, or call 1-877-KIDS- NOW (543-7669). Visit https://www.healthcare.gov/medicaid-chip/childrens-health-insurance-program/ for more information.

There are also plans offered by the Affordable Care Act, which may include subsidies if you qualify. For information about the law and what it offers, visit http://www.hhs.gov/healthcare/rights/.

Many pregnancy resource centers offer health services and/or free childbirth and parenting classes, and can also help find a doctor, navigate social services, obtain needed supplies, and provide emotional support. Hospitals and the Red Cross (http://www.redcross.org) also offer cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and first aid courses, which help new parents be prepared for any childhood injuries.

If you plan to place your baby for adoption, the adoptive couple often covers medical and many other expenses.

Choosing and Working with a Pediatrician

Unless you plan to place your baby for adoption, a pediatrician should be selected before a child is born. Interview pediatricians: ask for their qualifications, philosophy of care, and office and on-call policies. Make sure that you are comfortable with your selection. After the child is born, check your choice by watching the doctor’s interaction with your child. Your child’s doctor will see your newborn as early as the day he or she is born, in the hospital. Pay close attention to all bills that come from your health care provider and call the office if there are any discrepancies or if you have any questions.

Many pediatricians’ offices provide a nurse advice phone line. When your child is sick, a call to the advice line can help you determine if you should take him/her to see the doctor.

Vaccinations and Medications

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children be vaccinated beginning at birth. But even if a family has private insurance, often only $500 is available for “well baby care” per year, and doctor’s visits add up quickly. Immunizations are available at county health departments for little or no cost to the parents. Contact information for health departments may be found on county websites or in the telephone book.

Many doctors’ offices will provide free samples of commonly used medications. If you need a prescription medication, ask your doctor if a generic medication is appropriate. Many pharmacies offer generic versions of commonly prescribed medications at a very low cost. If a generic medicine is not appropriate for you, ask your doctor for free samples of the prescription medication. Some drug manufacturers also provide financial assistance if you are having trouble paying for your prescription. Contact the pharmaceutical company for details.

If you have an insurance plan that requires co-pay for prescriptions, ask your doctor for a three-month prescription instead of monthly for any longer-term medications. Generally, a three-month prescription costs less than a one-month prescription purchased three times. Also, check to see if you can decrease your cost by sending prescriptions to a mail-order pharmacy linked to your insurance plan

Having a Safe and Healthy Home

Use child safety locks on cabinets to keep all medications, vitamins, cleaning supplies, and similar items far away from little hands and mouths. Keep the phone number of the national poison help hotline (1-800-222-1222) on each of your phones. Most poison control offices provide free stickers and magnets with the hotline number on them. Check http://www.poisonprevention.org for information on your local poison control office.

With all the dangerous substances locked away, focus on the basics. Hand washing, for example, is vital for illness and disease prevention–for both you and your child.

You should wash your hands before cooking or eating, after a bathroom visit or diaper change and after being out in a public place. When taking care of a sick child, make sure to wash your hands as often as possible. Hand washing can be made fun for kids by using special soaps or silly songs. Singing the ABC song while washing hands provides enough time for a thorough cleaning. Posters, coloring sheets and activities are available for children at www.scrubclub.org.

When children are sick, teething, or otherwise uncomfortable, you can try simple and inexpensive remedies. Humidifiers can be extremely useful to prevent colds during the dry winters and make a baby more comfortable. Heating pads may be made using uncooked rice and a clean sock. Fill a sock with uncooked rice, tie the end of the sock, and heat in the microwave until warm (not scalding hot!). It will stay warm for up to an hour. Cold teething rings or cold, wet washcloths provide comfort to a baby who is cutting teeth.

Remember to take care of yourself. You need to stay in good health so you can care for the children who depend on you. You are also setting examples that will shape their future health into adulthood. No pressure—that’s just parenting!

Updated by Lauren Sumners with contributions made by Dr. Diana Newman, RN and Dr. Ingrid Skop. Original article adapted from the 2009/10 issue of The American Feminist, “Raising Kids on a Shoestring” published by Feminists for Life of America.

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