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Setting up camp

Careful preparation can keep campers safe and quell anxieties that nag parents and their children

By Karen Weintraub
Globe Correspondent / June 20, 2011

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The start of camp season is cause for excitement in many children. But it can also be a source of anxiety for them and their parents. Sunburns, bug bites, food issues, adjustment problems, medical needs — parents getting ready to send off young campers have a lot on their minds besides labeling T-shirts.

Camp nurses and specialists say the most important thing parents can do is to form a partnership with the camp, giving camp officials the information they need to know to take the best possible care of their campers. In general, that means parents communicating early and often about any concerns.

For example, do not wait until the first day of camp to mention to the staff that your child has life-threatening allergies.

“The more you tell the camp director or camp nurse, the better prepared the camp is going to be to assist and help out,’’ said Bette Bussel, executive director of the American Camp Association, New England (www.acacamps.org).

The Globe spoke to Bussel and other camp health experts to develop the following suggestions for parents:

PREPARING FOR CAMP Both day and overnight camps require medical forms and vaccination records, so signing up for camp usually involves a visit to the doctor’s office. If you have concerns about sunscreen or bug spray, talk to your pediatrician, and make sure the doctor fills out a form for the camp if your child has any health issues.

Camps in Massachusetts are required by state law to have a designated health supervisor at the camp at all times, and you may want to ask about that person’s credentials. Camps also must have a health care consultant who is a licensed doctor, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant with pediatric training. Any serious injuries must be reported to parents and to the state.

To help your child get ready for camp, talk to him or her about the activities the camp offers, the pace of the day, and, for an overnight camp, what the bunking situation will be. Most American children are used to having their own room, and it can be quite a shock to have to sleep in the same room with a dozen others.

“What I want is for kids to feel that camp is something they’ve chosen to do and have some control over,’’ said Christopher Thurber, a camp consultant and school psychologist at Philips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H. “Kids who feel forced to go away, or have everything done for them and are dropped off at camp, have a much harder adjustment.’’

GENERAL HEALTH ISSUES Don’t worry that your child will be the only one at camp who needs medications or frequents the nurse’s office. Bussel said at least half of all campers now have one or more health issues, including food allergies, environmental allergies, asthma, diabetes, and emotional or behavioral problems.

The important thing is to talk to camp personnel about your child’s health problems before camp begins.

“It’s so much easier to talk about things in advance and plan if there are any special things the camp could do to make the child’s experience better at the get-go,’’ said Julie Lindstrom, a longtime camp nurse and upper school nurse at the Buckingham Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge.

And please, Bussel begged, don’t decide to take your child off medications when you send them to camp. Not packing medications, like Ritalin for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and not telling the camp that your child was previously medicated, is a prescription for disaster, she said.

“The kid gets to camp and you can imagine what happens,’’ she said. “It’s critical for parents not to make any abrupt changes.’’

SUN PROTECTION Children should be protected against sunburns and ultraviolet light that can cause skin cancer, though moderate sun exposure every day helps the body make the vitamin D that it needs. The US Food and Drug Administration last week recommended that sunscreens should protect against both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays.

“Not only should consumers regularly apply and reapply sunscreens with Broad Spectrum and SPF of 15 or higher, they should also limit sun exposure,’’ the FDA said in a statement.

Tell your child to apply sunscreen generously — as much as a shot-glass-size amount at every application — and reapply it every two hours and after swimming.

Several environmental and consumer groups have recently raised questions about the safety of many sunscreens. Those with the active ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide — the thick, white stuff — are generally considered the safest and most effective. Unfortunately, they are also likely to be expensive — as much as $10 an ounce.

The Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization, recently rated sunscreens for chemical safety and effectiveness. The group recommends against products containing retinyl palmitate, a derivative of vitamin A, because animal studies suggest it may increase the risk of skin cancer when exposed to sunlight. The group also flagged a hormone-disrupting chemical called oxybenzone that is found in many sunscreens.

Anyone can have an allergic reaction to an ingredient in sunscreen, so you should have your child try out any new brand of sunscreen before packing it.

The safest bet may be to convince your child to wear a wide brim hat, seek out shade whenever possible, and choose indoor activities during the middle of the day, when the sun is the strongest.

BUG REPELLENT If your child attends day camp, it’s easy to get them inside at dusk, when mosquitoes are most active. At sleep-away camp, it’s out of your control.

The need for repellent depends somewhat on where the camp is located. If it’s at the edge of a mosquito-infested swamp, you probably need stronger stuff than if it’s in an urban environment.

The Environmental Working Group also rates bug sprays, and many more repellents meet its safety standards than do sunscreens. Some brands can be sprayed on cotton, wool, or nylon clothes in addition to or instead of on skin.

“If you have something specific you want your child to use, make sure you’ve got it packed and plan to communicate with the camp,’’ Lindstrom said.

HOMESICKNESS, EMOTIONAL ISSUES Parents can make their child’s adjustment to camp easier or harder, specialists said.

Before camp starts, avoid the “What will I do without you?’’ kind of statements. To you, this may be a throwaway line, but to a 9-year-old, it can create feelings of guilt that they are making you unhappy by going to camp, Lindstrom said.

“Anxiety with regard to camp is generally a learned experience,’’ said Linda Ebner Erceg, executive director of the Association of Camp Nurses. “Kids may catch it from parents.’’

It is natural for a child to feel lonesome during the first week of sleepaway camp, without bedtime stories, mom or dad to tuck them in, or their regular routine. But don’t promise your child that you will be there to pick them up if they are not happy, several experts warned. That sets up an expectation you may not be willing to meet, and it undermines the growth that can happen at camp.

If parents are feeling nervous or apprehensive themselves while their children are at camp, they should feel free to call the camp director or nurse, Erceg said — even every day, if necessary at first. If children are upset at camp, they should speak to their counselor, she said.

Campers or their parents should immediately tell a counselor or camp official about bullying or any other behavior that feels threatening. Camp directors have become very attuned to such issues in recent years, Erceg said, but they cannot address problems they are not aware of.

“The code of silence has to be broken for us to help you,’’ she said.

Before sending children off to sleepaway camp for the first time, make sure they have had a chance to practice with a few sleepovers with friends or relatives. That time apart is good for both child and parent, said camp consultant Thurber, a nationally recognized expert on homesickness.

“We don’t develop coping strategies unless we’re made a little uncomfortable, challenged a bit,’’ said Thurber, who has spent more than 25 summers at camps and offers a free camp guide at www.summercamphandbook.com.

Oh, and one more tip: Don’t forget to label everything!

“At the end of the summer, I have 30 pairs of unlabeled swim goggles,’’ Thurber said.

Karen Weintraub can be reached at karen@karenweintraub.com.