We all want to protect our kids, whether from falls, bumps and bruises — or avoidable infections and diseases. To help your children avoid getting sick, it’s important to encourage good habits and take steps to boost their immune systems from an early age.
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“Most of what makes a child’s immune system strong is common sense,” says pediatrician Adriane Lioudis, MD. If you follow these five tips, you’ll stack the deck in your child’s favor for a healthier life.
1. For newborns, consider breastfeeding
While it’s a very personal decision (that isn’t always possible), if you are able to exclusively breastfeed your child for at least six months, it may have benefits for your child in reducing risk for infections. Research shows that breastfeeding your child also may reduce allergies, Dr. Lioudis says.
2. Promote regular hand washing
Touch transmits up to 80% of infections. Teach your children to take time to wash their hands after sneezing, coughing and going to the bathroom. Washing hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds can remove bacteria and viruses and can reduce the chance of lung infections by up to 45%.
3. Don’t skip immunizations
Follow your pediatrician’s advice when it comes to the childhood vaccination schedule. Immunizations start in infancy and continue to adulthood and prevent measles, mumps, chicken pox, rotavirus and other infections.
Get the flu shot for your child yearly, as well, Dr. Lioudis says. This is particularly important for children with asthma and other chronic health conditions.
Also, if your child is planning to travel internationally, it’s important to seek advice from his or her doctor about any needed vaccinations.
4. Make sleep a priority
To maximize immunity, children must get enough sleep, Dr. Lioudis says.
Sleep requirements for each night vary by age:
- Preschoolers (ages 3-5), should get between 10 and 13 hours
- Children ages 6 to 13 should get between 9 and 11 hours
- Adolescents ages 14-17 need between 8 and 10 hours
Not getting enough sleep limits the body’s ability to produce proteins called cytokines that help fight infection and reduce inflammation.
5. Encourage a healthy diet
A healthy diet is also important for your child’s immune system, Dr. Lioudis says.
Encourage your child to “eat the rainbow” when it comes to fruits and vegetables, as well as a good selection of whole grains. Limit processed foods. Proper food choices ensure that your child gets enough vitamins — such as Vitamin A and E — needed to maintain good health and a strong immune system.
You can’t avoid all illness, but some kids need extra protection
Even if you follow these tips, your child likely will still get between seven and 11 colds each year, Dr. Lioudis says. Expect each one to last up to two weeks.
Keep in mind that some things billed as common “remedies” aren’t effective in boosting immunity. For example, there’s no definitive proof that large amounts of vitamin C or echinacea help prevent colds or shorten them, she says.
However, if your child has a compromised immune system, work closely with your pediatrician to find ways to improve his or her immunity. Each child needs a personalized approach because their individual immune system varies, Dr. Lioudis says.
“There’s generally a different protocol with immunocompromised children,” she says. “There are some vaccines we have to add in on top of what most children have, but it’s something that we must determine on a case-by-case basis.”