Umatter for Families logo

Health Literacy

  • What does health literacy mean?
  • Why is health literacy important for me and my child?
  • How can I increase my health literacy as well as my child’s?

Health literacy refers to one’s ability to gather, check and understand information about health and wellness.  It also involves processing this information to make well-informed decisions. Some examples include:

  • Understanding food labels
  • Following instructions for dosage of a medication
  • Ask informed questions during regular check ups with a doctor

For example, a parent may be deciding which yogurt brand is best for their child.  They know that healthy fats are good for their brains and they also know that too much sugar affects their child’s mood. So, after looking at all the labels and ingredients, they choose the one with more fat but less sugar. Having gathered information about fat and sugar and then reading through all the labels, that parent was able to make the best choice for their kid. 

At the most basic level, children can learn how to read labels and determine if foods are healthy or not based on their ingredients.  They also learn that wearing their helmet to ride a bike, scooter or skateboard is the safest way to protect their heads.  As they get older, they may be able to read and understand medicine or follow instructions after a medical procedure.

Why It Matters

This skill is an important one for both parents and children to develop, especially in an information age where there is so much out there for them to  sift through.  In addition to the internet, there are TV commercials and ads that can be overwhelming, especially if the information contradicts other things people have seen or heard. Some topics include weight loss products, the effects of CBD based products and nutritional supplements.  

At some point, everyone will be faced with the task of finding, understanding and using health information to make decisions about their lives.   In fact, health literacy is a stronger predictor of health than even age, income, educational background or race.  Although older people, those with language barriers and people who live below the poverty line are more likely to be health illiterate, this can happen to anyone. 

When a person has low health literacy, or there is a big gap between what the patient knows and how their health information is presented, there can be severe consequences. People with low health literacy are more likely to have chronic conditions, more ER visits and higher medical bills.  Therefore, it is important that parents and caregivers increase their own health literacy and begin passing on that knowledge to their children. 

By helping children develop health literacy at an early age, this process may feel less overwhelming.  As they move into adolescence and adulthood, they begin to learn what types of resources can and cannot be trusted, are better at reading medical information and develop the critical thinking skills necessary to take care of themselves and make good health choices.

Check In:

More and more doctor’s offices and hospitals are finding ways to increase their patients’ health literacy.  However, there is a lot that parents and caregivers can do on their own to ensure the best understanding of their own health as well as their child’s.  The list below are actions that adults can take for themselves as well as during visits with their child.  Read through the guidelines below and note the ones that you currently do.   


  • Choose habits that promote a healthy lifestyle
  • Use prevention as a form of health care

Everyday Information

  • Understand labels on food
  • Understand medicine (or vitamins, supplements, etc) and dosage

Doctor’s Visits

  • Go to the doctor’s office prepared to take notes and ask questions
  • Make sure you understand everything the doctor is telling you
  • Summarize what they doctor says so that you can check your understanding
  • Ask for more more resources/materials for what the doctor says
  • Can get translated resources for my health care
  • Get written materials in addition or oral instructions
  • Make annual appointments for myself and my family including: dentist, dermatologist, OBGYN, mammograms, etc.

Finding more information

  • Know where to get credible and reliable information about my health
  • Know how to get financial aid for medical expenses


Connect & Communicate:

You can help your child develop health literacy early on by including them in discussions and talking to them about all aspects of their health.  You can also help them determine whether what they see on TV or in magazines is accurate and credible.  Below are some specific ways to promote this important skill.

  • Allow and encourage them to ask questions at doctor’s visits.  Request that the doctor talks directly to your child instead of you so that they feel included in the conversation and pay attention to what is being said.
  • Ask them to summarize what they heard from the doctor’s visit.  Ask them if there is anything they don’t understand or want to learn more about. 
  • Discuss what they can do if they don’t understand health information
  • Discuss where they can get trusted information (doctors, nurses, etc) and who may not be credible (friends, TV shows, etc)
  • Do activities and art that help them understand the human body.  This will build their background knowledge that will help them make decisions about their own body in the future. 
  • Discuss all levels of personal safety (helmets, seat belts, stranger danger, hygiene, germs etc)
  • Allow them to talk about family members or close friends who have conditions.  Encourage them to ask questions.
  • Allow them to come to your doctor’s appointments and model interacting with the doctor.  Ask questions, get more information and get clarification in the same way you want them to in their own appointments.
  • Talk about magazine ads and commercials and whether or not the information is true. 

Activities for Learning about Health, Wellness and the Body

Hands Up Videos:  Videos designed for kids to help with health literacy including: 

Applying Physical and Health Literacy:

Outschool Classes:  These ones are for kids and are connected to health.

Inside Your Body Book:  Read and discuss with your child.

My First Human Body Book:  Read and discuss with your child.

Contact & Collaborate:

Your own health provider and your child’s pediatrician will have some ideas and resources for building your own health literacy.  In addition to that, you may want to check out:

  • Health Literacy Programs at your local hospital or library or Cooperative Extension Office
  • Library for resources on health.  You and your child can find age-appropriate books and magazines on topics that you are interested in learning about.

Learn about resources from Medicare and Medicaid

Continue Learning:

Podcasts for Kids Health (a collection of podcasts)  There are 30 of the best children’s health podcast:

Moments a Day (blog)  How to Prepare Your Child to Be An Advocate for Their Own Health

Parents (blog)  How I’m Raising My Kids To Be Healthcare Self-Advocates

Print Friendly, PDF & Email