Supporting your child against common illnesses can be an ongoing concern, especially during the winter months. With children being constantly exposed to various bacteria and viruses it can be difficult to manage our children’s health.
There are a number of areas we can help to support immunity in children.
1. Breast Is Best
Breastfeeding your child is an important way for them to start life with a good immunity. Studies show that breastfeeding for up to four months after birth significantly reduces the risk of developing asthma in later childhood. Breastfed babies have far less risk of developing chronic diseases later in life such as diabetes and multiple sclerosis as well as overall lower risk of sickness and infection.
2. Boost digestion
The digestive system, in particular our guts play a crucial role in our immunity with the gut making up roughly 70% of our total ability to fight off illness. Ensure proper bowel elimination as this is key to removing toxins from the body:
· Ensure proper hydration – dehydration works against the body’s ability to protect the body - liquids add bulk to the stool and allow it to pass more easily. Increase fluids by offering fresh water, water with added lemon juice, well diluted not from concentrate fruit juices, soups, broths, breast milk and herbal teas such as fennel, peppermint and lemon balm.
· Include fibre rich fruit and vegetables such as sweet potato, cabbage, kale, plums, prunes, peaches and pears which all help the bowel eliminate more efficiently.
· Add omega rich nuts and seeds which will also add fibre and aid the movement of the stool, making it easier to pass. Flaxseed are a good option for preventing constipation.
· Remove constipating foods from the diet – dairy foods, sugary foods and bananas.
3. Add Probiotics.
Digestive micro flora play an increasingly important role in immunity. Recent studies show that those children who take a good quality probiotic have a reduced risk of developing upper respiratory disorders, colds, flus or tummy bugs.
Tips to choosing a good probiotic supplement:
· Choose a well-known and trusted brand which specialises in probiotic supplements as they tend to have invested the most time and energy in researching particular strains of micro-flora.
· Ensure there are billions of live bacteria still present at the time of expiration. Many brands will show you a number of bacteria at time of manufacture but you can expect 2-4% expiration per month of storage. Look for a time of expiration figure. Aim for 15 billion as a good starting level.
· Choose a supplement which has a good number of different strains of bacteria.
4. Serve more fruit & vegetables
Colourful fruit and vegetables contain antioxidants and phytonutrients which are very important in enhancing immunity. The more colourful your child’s plate, the greater the number of nutrients so try to get them to eat a rainbow! Vitamins such as Vitamin C, carotenoids and phytonutrients can increase production of infection fighting white blood cells. A diet rich in these antioxidants can also prevent the development of chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Aim for at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day (a portion is a tablespoon for toddlers and 1 cup raw vegetables, ½ cup of cooked vegetables, medium sized piece of fruit or ½ cup of cooked or unsweetened canned fruit for older children)
Easy ways to increase vegetable and fruit consumption:
· Include in soups and smoothies for an easy boost of nutrients!
· Blend into tomato sauces for added hidden vegetables!
· Serve raw vegetables (carrot, celery, beetroot) with homemade dips like hummus or guacamole.
· Aim for approximately ½ the plate as vegetables for healthier mealtimes.
5. Avoid Sugar
Sugar consumption has been found to decrease phagocytic action (immune cells ability to “consume” a threat/bacteria/virus) significantly for up to five hours after consumption
6. Boost sleep
Sleep is extremely important for immunity. Lack of sleep has been shown to reduce natural killer cells which help fight off infection and cancer cells. Ensure your child has sufficient, good quality sleep each day to help their immune system function at its peak.
· Ensure a fixed bed time routine each day – set a bed time and stick to it.
· Do not allow your child to play video consoles or use mobile phones in bed – bright lights before bedtime can disrupt proper sleep hormone regulation. Switch off all electronics at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
· Discourage the use of night lights where at all possible. Full darkness is a crucial component of restful sleep.
· Use blackout curtains to ensure full room darkness if napping during the day or for Summer months.
Increasing evidence suggests that regular moderate exercise can help to boost immunity. During moderate exercise immune cells travel through the body more quickly, leading to increased attack on bacteria and viruses.
· Exercise as a family to encourage your child to get out and get moving.
· Exposure to Vitamin D via sunlight is also very important for immune function. During winter months when sunlight exposure is low, consider taking a good quality Vitamin D supplement of 1000IU per day, taken with food.
· Take your child on a bicycle ride in the park or swimming at your local gym.
· Set a good example – if children see their parents exercise regularly they are more likely to include time for exercise themselves.
8. Avoid Antibiotic Abuse
With busy lives and the constant threat of your child becoming sick, there is sometimes a tendency to urge our GP to write a prescription for an antibiotic at the first sign of illness. It is understandable – sick days often mean time off work for parents, and this is not always ideal. However reaching for an antibiotic for every cold or cold is not a good idea – in fact it can cause more problems than it is worth. Antibiotics are only designed to work on bacteria and cold, flus and many coughs are caused by viruses, on which antibiotics will have zero effect. Antibiotics are a marvellous medicine – but if used incorrectly they can lead to antibiotic resistant superbugs. Their use also throws the delicate micro-flora in our guts out of balance which will have bad effects on our long term immunity.
· Only give your child an antibiotic for bacterial infections.
· Do not be afraid to ask your GP if it is absolutely necessary to give an antibiotic. Many doctors wrongly feel pressured to give antibiotics because they feel the parent wants it. Some will be very happy to give you a delayed prescription for an antibiotic in case it is needed at a later date.
· Always follow up an antibiotic with a good probiotic supplement.
· Try natural antibiotics – Manuka honey (UMF 15+), Garlic, Echinacea.