Babies don't have to get ill to build an arsenal of antibodies. Some kids make antibodies against a virus just by being exposed to it -- without actually getting the cold, explains Paul Offit, MD, chief of infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Also, fortunately, there are things you can do to strengthen baby's resistance to colds and flu -- while limiting his exposure to really dangerous bugs.
1. Get your baby all the proper immunizations. Having your baby immunized is an important way to keep her healthy. Vaccines provide protection from dangerous ailments like pertussis without baby actually having to get the disease.
2. Breastfeed your baby. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes that the most effective way to foster a robust immune system is perhaps the easiest: breastfeed your baby. Your breast milk contains antibodies against the illnesses you've already experienced. While it's true that breastfeeding won't necessarily keep your baby from getting sick, studies show that nursing will reduce the duration and intensity of common troubles like ear infections. The AAP recommends that mothers breastfeed for at least one year. Any amount of time is better than nothing, but try to stretch it out for at least the first four months.
3. Don't expose your baby to large groups of people before she's 6 weeks old. It's probably wise not to expose a newborn to the general public or large groups of people until she's 6 weeks old, especially in the winter months, when more viruses are going around. But don't worry too much about it. Going for a walk on a warm summer day isn't going to make your newborn sick.
4. Be careful who holds him. Baby's underdeveloped immune systems make him prone to catching colds. It's the people who hold him, coochie-coo him, or sneeze on him that get you into trouble. Exposure to people -- and their germs -- is what makes babies sick.
5. Wash your hands often. Everyone should wash their hands before handling a newborn. Experts agree that regular hand washing is the best way to prevent the spread of illnesses, since viruses live on doorknobs and other objects we routinely touch.
6. Keep young children from kissing your baby's face. If you want to be totally safe, let young siblings hold or touch the baby, but keep them from kissing her face. Children younger than age 6 get sick more often, and they're likely to be coming down with a cold or other bug.
7. Get your baby moving. Believe it or not, even babies -- who are learning so much at once -- can get stressed, which taxes their immune system. This stress can be reduced by exercise. Before your baby can walk, try playing kicking games with her. Once your baby is up and about, take her outside to play. Toddlers need fresh air and exercise every day, even in cold climates. People think that cold air will cause colds, but remember: Viruses cause colds. And viruses live inside buildings.
8. Give your baby vitamin C. In addition to following the food pyramid and providing plenty of fruits and veggies, you can supplement baby's diet with multivitamins that contain vitamin C. While there's no direct proof that vitamin C stops colds, many believe it helps -- and it certainly can't hurt. Ask your pediatrician about starting vitamin drops as early as 6 months; by 2 years, you can upgrade to chewables.
9. Keep her sugar intake low. There's evidence that sugar can cause white cells to be less active, weakening their response to germs. One of the prime culprits in kids' diets is fruit juice. Because juice is a liquid, children lose most of the nutrients in it and retain the sugar. Instead, give baby banana slices or diced apples once he starts solids, and add some yogurt with live cultures. Yogurt contains healthy bacteria that will help baby's body fight tummy troubles.
Sources: Jack Becker, MD; Paul Offit, MD; Wendy Wright, MD
Reviewed 2/02 by Jane Forester, MD
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.