Let them eat dirt, it’s good for them. Well maybe not actual dirt – but like most parents, we are always looking for natural ways to strengthen our children’s ability to fight off illness. Here are some better ways we can help give our children the upper hand to boost their immune systems.
1. More fruits and vegetables, please. Carrots, green beans, oranges, and strawberries all contain immunity-boosting phytonutrients as vitamin C and carotenoids. Such phytonutrients may increase the body’s production of infection-fighting white blood cells and interferon, an antibody that coats cell surfaces, blocking out viruses. Studies show that a diet rich in phytonutrients can also protect against such chronic diseases as cancer and 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, and about 1 cup for older kids). Another good way to supplement is to give your child a Dr Pops lollipop, rich in vitamin C.
2. Catch more Z’s. Studies show that sleep deprivation can make you more susceptible to illness by reducing natural killer cells. How much sleep do kids need? A newborn may need up to 18 hours a day, toddlers require 12 to 13 hours, and preschoolers need about 10 hours.
3. Breastfeed your baby. Breast milk contains turbo-charged immunity-enhancing antibodies and white blood cells. Nursing guards against ear infections, allergies, diarrhea, pneumonia, meningitis, urinary-tract infections, and SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). Colostrum, the thin yellow “premilk” that flows from the breasts during the first few days after birth, is especially rich in disease-fighting antibodies. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that moms breastfeed for a year. 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 utero.
4. Exercise as a family. Research shows that exercise increases the number of natural killer cells in adults — and regular activity can benefit kids in the same way, says Ranjit Chandra, M.D., a pediatric immunologist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. To get your children into a lifelong fitness habit, be a good role model. “Exercise with them rather than just urge them to go outside and play,” says Renee Stucky, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Missouri Medical School. Fun family activities include bike riding, hiking, in-line skating, basketball, and tennis. Yoga is another fun activity the whole family can benefit from.
5. Wash your hands. Fighting germs doesn’t technically boost immunity, but it’s a great way to reduce stress on your child’s immune system. Make sure your kids wash their hands often — and with soap. You should pay particular attention to their hygiene before and after each meal and after playing outside, handling pets, blowing their nose, using the bathroom, and arriving home from school or daycare. When you’re out, carry disposable wipes with you for quick cleanups. To help kids get into the hand-washing habit at home, let them pick out their own brightly colored hand towels and soap in fun shapes, colors, and scents.
Another key germ-busting strategy: “If your child does get sick, throw out her toothbrush right away,” says Barbara Rich, D.D.S., a spokesperson for the Academy of General Dentistry. A child can’t catch the same cold or flu virus twice, but the virus can hop from toothbrush to toothbrush, infecting other family members. If it’s a bacterial infection, such as strep throat, however, your child can reinfect herself with the same germs that got her sick in the first place. In that case, tossing the toothbrush protects both your child and the rest of your family.
6. Quit smoking. If you or your spouse smokes, quit. Cigarette smoke contains more than 4,000 toxins, most of which can irritate or kill cells in the body, says Beverly Kingsley, Ph.D., an epidemiologist with the Office on Smoking and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta. 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 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 the house.
7. Don’t push for antibiotics. 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, “but the majority of childhood illnesses are caused by viruses,” says Howard Bauchner, M.D., a professor of pediatrics and public health at the Boston University School of Medicine.
Studies show that many pediatricians prescribe antibiotics somewhat reluctantly at the urging of parents who mistakenly think it can’t hurt. In fact, it can. Strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria have flourished as a result, and a simple ear infection is more difficult to cure if it’s caused by stubborn bacteria that don’t respond to standard treatment. If an illness is viral, an antibiotic will likely not be able to treat it. Instead, you just have to allow it to get better naturally, most commonly with fluids and rest. Whenever your child’s pediatrician wants to prescribe an antibiotic, make sure she isn’t prescribing it solely because she thinks you want it. “I strongly encourage parents to say, ‘Do you think it’s really necessary?’ ” Dr. Bauchner says.
8. Drink more water. Drinking plenty of water ensures that your blood will carry enough oxygen to all the cells in your body, to allow all of your body’s systems to function adequately. Your immune system functions best when your muscles and organs are functioning best. Water also allows your kidneys to remove toxins from your body. It allows your cells to take in nutrients, and it also allows them to expel waste products. If you don’t drink enough water, toxins will build up, weakening your immune system.
9. Daycare. An infant’s immune system really starts to strengthen when the baby is exposed to bacteria and viruses in the environment. Such pathogens will sometimes make your baby feel lousy, but they also prompt the production of natural antibodies so he or she can better fight off infections in the future. That means kids who are around more germs from an early age, particularly kids who attended daycare as a baby (age two or younger), will likely have stronger immune systems by the time they start school.
10. A kids best friend. We all know they are man’s best friend, but a dog can be a child’s best friend, too. Dogs help build and strengthen kids’ immune systems. According to a study, babies who lived with a dog were 31% more likely to be healthy in their first year than babies without a dog. Kids with dogs are less prone to developing allergies and asthma.