The immune system is a remarkable thing. Its job is to protect us from the endless array of germs and viruses we’re exposed to every day. Children come into the world with a very inexperienced immune system. Over time, their exposure to various germs, viruses, and other organisms fine tunes their immune systems into lean, mean, germ fighting machines. With all that’s happening with the COVID-19 pandemic, a healthy, robust immune system is more important than ever. Here are six ways you can give your child’s immune system a little extra support:
1. Serve more fruits and vegetables. Carrots, green beans, oranges, strawberries all contain carotenoids, which are immunity-boosting phytonutrients. Phytonutrients help increase the body’s production of infection-fighting white blood cells and interferon, a protein that coats cell surfaces, blocking out viruses. Studies show that a diet rich in phytonutrients can also protect against heart disease in adulthood. Try to get your child to eat five servings of fruits and veggies a day. (A serving is about two tablespoons for toddlers, one cup for older kids.)
2. Boost sleep time. Studies show that sleep deprivation can make you more susceptible to illness by reducing natural killer cells, immune-system weapons that attack microbes. Children in daycare are particularly at risk for sleep deprivation because all the activity can make it difficult for them to nap. How much sleep do kids need? An infant may need up to 16 hours of crib time a day, toddlers require 11 to 14 hours, and preschoolers need 10 to 13 hours. If your child can’t or won’t take naps during the day, try putting them to bed earlier.
3. Breastfeed your baby. Breast milk contains immunity-enhancing antibodies and white blood cells and is the only source of antibodies for babies in the first six months of life. Breast milk protects against ear infections, allergies, diarrhea, pneumonia, meningitis, and urinary tract infections. Colostrum, the thin yellow “premilk” that flows from the breasts during the first few days after birth, is especially rich in disease-fighting antibodies. It is recommended that moms exclusively breastfeed for the first six months of life. If this commitment isn’t realistic, aim to breastfeed for at least the first two to three months in order to supplement the immunity your baby received in the womb. Since the COVID-19 vaccines have become available, many mothers have wondered whether it is safe to continue breastfeeding. Not only is it safe, but highly recommended as antibodies to COVID-19 have been found in the breast milk of vaccinated mothers and offer some degree of protection to breastfed babies.
4. Exercise as a family. Research shows that exercise increases the number of natural killer cells, which are helpful in fighting off germs. It also reduces the levels of stress hormone (cortisol) in the body, which in turn reduces stress on the immune system. To get your children into a lifelong fitness habit, be a good role model. Exercise with them rather than just urging them to go outside and play. Fun family activities include bike riding, walking, skating, basketball, and tennis. Children and adults should aim for 60 minutes of physical activity daily.
5. Banish secondhand smoke. If you or your spouse smokes, quit. Cigarette smoke contains more than 7,000 harmful chemicals, many of which can irritate or kill cells in the body. Kids are more susceptible than adults to the harmful effects of secondhand smoke because they breathe at a faster rate; a child’s natural detoxification system is also less developed. Secondhand smoke increases a child’s risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), bronchitis, ear infections, and asthma. It may also affect intelligence and neurological development. If you absolutely can’t quit smoking, you can reduce your child’s health risks considerably by smoking only outside and removing those clothes before entering the house. Just remember, if you or your child can smell the smoke, you are breathing it in.
6. Don’t pressure your pediatrician. Urging your pediatrician to write a prescription for an antibiotic whenever your child has a cold, flu, or sore throat is a bad idea. Antibiotics treat only illnesses caused by bacteria. The majority of childhood illnesses are caused by viruses. Taking antibiotics when they’re not needed breeds resistant strains of bacteria. As a result, a simple ear or urinary tract infection is more difficult to cure if it’s caused by stubborn bacteria that doesn’t respond to standard treatment. Whenever your child’s pediatrician wants to prescribe an antibiotic, make sure you are clear about what’s being treated.
Remember that your pediatrician is a valuable resource for helping you raise happy and healthy kids. If you have questions about things you can do to support your child’s immune health, don’t hesitate to reach out for advice.
• Dr. Tamarra Moss is a pediatrician committed to helping you raise happy and healthy kids. You can find her at Dr. Carlos Thomas & Pediatric Associates in Nassau, Lucayan Medical Center in Grand Bahama, or on Instagram @mykidsdoc242.