National Diabetes Month: Helping families manage the disease

SONY DSCOdds are you know someone with diabetes – a parent, sibling, aunt, uncle or family friend. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 25 million people in the U.S. currently have diabetes, and it is one of the most common chronic diseases in children and adolescents. About one in every 400 children and adolescents has diabetes. That’s a lot of finger pricks and insulin shots, which is why, in recognition of National Diabetes Month, Seattle Children’s Hospital’s diabetes expert, Karen Aitken, ARNP, offers advice to parents to help manage a child’s diabetes.

Diabetes can be a scary and unexpected diagnosis to a child and family. The good news, however, is that diabetes is manageable with proper care and education. And although diabetes is a chronic condition, diabetes doesn’t define a child. By working with a healthcare team, eating right, exercising and keeping blood sugar levels close to normal, children with diabetes can live a long, happy and healthy life.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a condition that causes the sugar level in a person’s blood to become too high. Symptoms may include feeling thirsty, needing to urinate more often, losing weight, feeling extra tired, headaches, nausea and vomiting.

There are several different types of diabetes, but the most common forms of diabetes are type 1 and type 2.

Type 1 diabetes most commonly develops in children and young adults and occurs when blood sugar levels rise out of control because a person’s body stops making insulin. This is thought to happen when a person’s body mistakenly attacks the cells in the pancreas where insulin is produced.

Type 2 diabetes, which has been increasing in recent years among children and adolescents in the U.S., occurs when an individual is unable to use insulin properly and keep blood sugar levels within a normal range.

Unlike type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes can sometimes be prevented. Excessive weight gain, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle are all factors that put a person at risk for type 2 diabetes.

Currently, there is no cure for diabetes.

Living with diabetes

Whether a child is diagnosed with type 1 or type 2, there’s a lot to learn about diabetes. It’s important, however, to remember a child’s life doesn’t need to be put on hold. The best thing families can do is learn about the disease and prepare for situations that may arise.

Although a child’s environment may change day-to-day, routine is an important aspect of managing diabetes. Keeping a child’s schedule consistent and incorporating frequent check-ins with a child can help ease their anxiety about their condition.

A typical day for a child with diabetes

Check blood sugar. Check a child’s blood sugar often – when a child wakes up, before meals and snacks, before bed, before and after exercise, or any time a child is not feeling quite right.

Give insulin. Give insulin at least four times per day, either with a shot or through an insulin pump, a small device worn on the body that delivers insulin through a tiny tube just under the skin.

Eat well! Read labels, measure portions, and know the amount of carbohydrates in any given food.

“Insulin doses are typically adjusted based on how much a person eats,” said Aitken. “Healthy choices for children include vegetables, fruits, lean meats, dairy, beans and healthy whole grains. Less healthy choices include foods made with refined sugars, highly processed foods or fast foods and drinks that contain sugar.”

Exercise. Activity is a very important part of staying healthy with diabetes.

“We encourage kids to do something active every day, preferably something that is fun for them. Exercise can take some extra planning, since it can make blood sugar levels go up or down,” said Aitken.

Expect the unexpected. Stress, illness, holidays, travel, school parties, sleepovers and countless unique situations can all make diabetes management more challenging. These changes in a child’s normal daily routine can sometimes cause sickness and high blood sugar levels.

“Children may need to do extra tests for substances called ketones in their urine if they are sick or have high blood sugars,” said Aitken.

Taking diabetes to school

Successfully managing diabetes goes well beyond just keeping extra supplies and insulin on hand.

“When we work with families on planning for care at school, we focus on keeping kids safe, but also on trying to make the school day as normal for them as possible,” said Aitken.

Some schools have had many students with diabetes, while others are less experienced in dealing with children with the disease and will rely on parents for guidance.

“Advocacy is key. Don’t be shy about outlining what the best-case scenario would be for your child’s diabetes care at school. Most schools are happy to partner with parents on their goals for safe care and limiting interruptions to the day,” said Aitken.

Training a parent-designated adult can also help in cases where a school nurse is not on site to assist a child with diabetes.

Family and friends

Whether it’s a play date or an afternoon with a relative, situations away from home call for planning. Before a child leaves the house, make sure family members and friends are aware of the child’s medical condition, medical needs, and have appropriate contact information in case of an emergency.

“While parents might not expect other caregivers to understand all the finer points of diabetes care, it’s important to teach them to know how to handle the most serious situations like low blood sugars, very high blood sugars and illness,” said Aitken.

Emotional aspects

Managing a child’s diabetes goes well beyond simply managing blood sugar levels. Living with diabetes can take an emotional toll on a child and family as well.

“The ‘to-do’ list is long and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the day-to-day workload,” said Aitken. “It’s easy for parents and kids to blame themselves for a situation, or a day that does not go well, but it’s important to focus on the positives,” said Aitken.

Think about what is going well and take one day at a time. Diabetes is a complex condition that requires care and routine, but it’s also manageable. Even with diabetes, a child can accomplish anything they set their mind to. From NFL quarterback Jay Cutler, to former Olympic medalist swimmer Gary Hall, there are plenty of incredible individuals who have managed their diabetes while excelling in life.

Finding support

For a child living with diabetes, and a family trying to help manage the complex condition with a child, it’s important to know support is out there.

“Meeting other kids with diabetes or other parents going through similar experiences can help relieve some of the burden of all this hard work. Attend a weekend retreat, workshop, diabetes camp or parent support group,” said Aitken.


If you’d like to arrange an interview with someone from Children’s diabetes team, please contact Children’s PR team at 206-987-4500 or at [email protected].