Yearly sicknesses throw my family off for a couple of weeks at a time. One of us gets sick and then it’s only a matter of time before the other family members get sick. Somehow I always end up with the worst case of it. Is that a universal circumstance for moms? It sure feels like it. While you can’t prevent cold and flu 100%, you can do things to help your children fight off the illnesses. As we head into cold and flu season, let’s look at five ways to boost babies' and children’s immune systems.
Eat a Nutrient-Rich and Balanced Diet
The foods our children eat impact their physical and mental health. A well-rounded and nutritious diet supports immune cell production and fights inflammation. There isn’t one specific food that will protect your child against illnesses. Once your child begins eating solid foods, introduce them to a wide variety of foods. Aim to incorporate a large number of vegetables, fruits, and proteins. For vegetables, try to include green vegetables such as broccoli, and dark, leafy greens like spinach, kale, collard, and mustard greens. A balanced and diverse diet that includes the nutrients below can help foster a strong immune system.
There are a variety of foods rich in vitamin D that you can try incorporating into your child’s diet. If they are old enough for solid foods, try different fatty fishes, such as salmon, trout, tuna, and sardines. Mushrooms are another option that you can work into various recipes. Foods fortified with vitamin D include cow milk, soy milk, yogurt, orange juice, cereal, and oatmeal. Make sure to check the nutrition label to determine if it’s fortified.
If you’re exclusively breastfeeding or pumping, your pediatrician may recommend giving your baby vitamin D drops. Formulas typically contain the necessary amount of vitamin D, so formula-fed babies won’t typically need drops unless their doctor determines that they’re vitamin d deficient.
The recommended daily amount of vitamin D depends on your child’s age:
- Birth to 12 months: 10 mcg
- Children 1–12 years: 15 mcg
- Teens 13–19 years: 15 mcg
* mcg = microgram
Foods high in zinc include meat, poultry, beans, and nuts. Zinc supports the body’s cell development and works against inflammation. Similar to vitamin D, the daily recommended amount of zinc varies by your child’s age.
- Birth to 6 months: 2 mcg
- Infants 7–12 months: 3 mcg
- Children 1–3 years: 3 mcg
- Children 4–8 years: 5 mcg
- Children 9–13 years: 8 mcg
- Teens 14–18 years (boys): 11 mcg
- Teens 14–18 years (girls): 9 mcg
*mcg = micrograms
A healthy gut impacts your child’s overall physical and mental health. Probiotics aid in creating good gut flora, which also helps their immune system. Foods containing probiotics include yogurt, apple cider vinegar, cheese, kimchi, kombucha, miso, and sauerkraut. If you’re interested in probiotic supplements for your baby or child, speak with their pediatrician first. They can tell you if your child would benefit from an added supplement and provide you with recommendations. Not all supplement brands are created equal. In the United States, supplements aren't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
Exercising helps your child’s body fight off illness in several ways. When we exercise, our bodies produce more white blood cells which strengthen our immune systems. Get creative when incorporating physical activity into your and your kids' daily lives. We want to model healthy physical activity for our children, so it’s helpful to be active as a family. Try some of the activities below to see what works for your family.
- Ride bikes
- Go for a walk - You can walk home from school, walk the dog, look for nature items to collect, or simply walk down the street.
- Play at the park
- Follow along with a yoga-for-kids video online
- Dance with your baby or kids
- Sign them up for youth sports
- Take movement breaks when watching TV or doing homework
Good sleep goes beyond making your children feel rested; it also helps them fight off infections. As you sleep, your body produces cytokines and T-cells, which are crucial to the body.
As a parent, you likely remember a time when you've felt rundown followed by a period of being sick. Kids are the same way. When they're exhausted and not getting enough sleep, their body isn't as prepared to fight off illness. Model good sleep hygiene for your kids. Turn off screens an hour before they go to sleep and stick to their bedtime schedule when possible. Even though toddlers and kids may protest at bedtime, consistent sleep schedules help them get the rest they need. Babies also have a harder time going to sleep and getting a good night's sleep when they’re overtired.
Teach Coping Strategies to Reduce Stress
Chronic stress negatively impacts the immune system. Your baby and children learn how to handle stress and regulate their emotions from you. Begin teaching your children age-appropriate coping skills early. You can do this by practicing mindfulness and breathing activities together. They'll also learn by seeing you model healthy coping strategies when you feel stressed. There are a variety of books that you can read together to help teach these skills including:
- Calm Down Time by Elizabeth Verdick
- B is for Breathe: The ABCs of Coping with Fussy and Frustrating Feelings by Dr. Melissa Murno Boyd
- The Self-Regulation Workbook for Kids: CBT Exercises and Coping Strategies to Help Children Handle Anxiety, Stress, and Other Strong Emotions by Jenna Berman
Teach Hygiene Skills
Children need help developing their hygiene skills. These are learned skills that they develop through practicing, seeing you model skills, and talking about them with you. You can incorporate hygiene skills discussion and practice throughout your daily routine. For example, when my toddler busts into the bathroom to ask me what I’m doing, I take a moment to explain that after I use the restroom, I wash my hands. When we wash our hands before dinner, I talk about scrubbing in between our fingers and the backs of our hands. I also regularly remind him to cover his mouth when he sneezes or coughs and then wash his hands. We don’t have big discussions. It just comes up as we go through our normal day.
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National Institutes of Health. “Office of Dietary Supplements - Zinc.” 2016. Accessed November 2, 2022.
National Institutes of Health. “Office of Dietary Supplements - Vitamin D.” 2017. Accessed November 2, 2022.