8 Ways to Help Boost Your Child's Immune System

Colds and flu are a fact of life, but there are smart steps you can take to help keep your kids healthy.

sick kid

What can you do to protect your child from the endless array of germs they encounter? Well, in some ways, getting sick is simply part of a kid's job description—and sometimes, it's actually beneficial to help them build up their immune system.

"We all enter this world with an inexperienced immune system," says Charles Shubin, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland. Slowly, children boost their immune systems by battling an ongoing series of bacteria, viruses, and other organisms—which is why many pediatricians consider six to eight colds, bouts of flu, or ear infections per year normal.

That said, some healthy habits can serve as an immune booster for kids—helping their immune system more effectively fight off pathogens and help them recover faster. Learn what you can do to help boost your kid’s immune system.

How to Boost Your Child's Immune System

Some strategies for supporting a healthy immune system include eating more vegetables, getting enough sleep, and washing hands regularly—but that's not all. Here are eight ways to kick your kid's immune system into high gear.

1. Serve more fruits and vegetables

When germs come knocking, reach for colorful fruits and veggies, such as carrots, green beans, oranges, and strawberries. This bright stuff contains carotenoids, which are immunity-boosting phytonutrients, says William Sears, M.D., author of The Family Nutrition Book.

Phytonutrients may increase the body's production of infection-fighting white blood cells and interferon, an antibody that coats cell surfaces, blocking out viruses. Research shows that a diet rich in phytonutrients can also protect against chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease in adulthood. Try to get your child to eat five servings of fruits and veggies per day.

2. Boost sleep time

Sleep deprivation can make adults more susceptible to illness by reducing natural killer cells, which are immune-system weapons that attack microbes and cancer cells. The same holds true for children, says Kathi Kemper, M.D., director of the Center for Holistic Pediatric Education and Research at Children's Hospital in Boston.

Children in daycare are particularly at risk for sleep deprivation because all of the activity can make it difficult for them to nap. Be sure to double-check your daycare's nap policy and if needed, put your child down for an earlier bedtime to ensure they're getting plenty of rest.

So how much sleep do kids need? An infant may require up to 16 hours of crib time each day, toddlers should have 11 to 14 hours, and preschoolers need 10 to 13 hours. "If your child can't or won't take naps during the day, try to put them to bed earlier," says Dr. Kemper.

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 sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Studies show that it may also enhance your baby's brain power and help protect them against insulin-dependent diabetes, Crohn's disease, colitis, and certain forms of cancer later in life. Colostrum, the thin yellow "pre-milk" that flows from the breasts during the first few days after birth, is especially rich in disease-fighting antibodies, says Dr. Shubin.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents exclusively breastfeed for the first six months of life. 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. (That said, there's nothing wrong with formula-feeding your infant from the start—a well-fed baby is always the healthiest!)

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 psychologist in Columbia, Missouri. Fun family activities include bike riding, hiking, in-line skating, basketball, and tennis.

5. Guard against germ spread

Reducing germs doesn't technically boost immunity, but it's a great way to decrease stress on your child's immune system, which can be especially helpful if your child has any other medical conditions or special needs that require that immune system to work in other ways.

One of the simplest and most effective strategies is to make sure your kids wash their hands often with soap and water. 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 daycare or school.

When you're out, carry disposable wipes for quick cleanups. (Rubbing your hands with the wipes will still help reduce germs even if you can't do a full hand wash.) To help kids get into the hand-washing habit at home, let them pick out their own colorful hand towels and soap in fun shapes and scents. Automatic hand soap dispensers are also a fun way to get them excited about hand-washing.

Another key germ-busting strategy: "If your child does get sick, throw out their 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 themselves with the same germs that got them sick in the first place. In that case, tossing the toothbrush protects both your child and the rest of your family.

And last, but not least, there is always our old favorite germ reduction strategy: wearing a mask. If your child has the sniffles, encourage them to wear a mask to prevent spreading germs. And if you're in an area of high COVID-19 spread (you can check the CDC's county map for updated transmission guidelines), wear a mask to help prevent catching the latest circulating strain.

6. Banish secondhand smoke

If you or anyone in your household smokes, then it's best to quit. Cigarette smoke contains more than 7,000 harmful chemicals, many 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 (CDC) in Atlanta. Kids are more susceptible than adults to the harmful effects of secondhand smoke because they breathe at a faster rate and their natural detoxification system is less developed.

If you're smoking e-cigarettes, you should also be aware that vaping has negative health consequences for kids too. For instance, vaping releases potential carcinogens like nitrosamines, which may have long-term implications for kids' health. Don't be fooled by the shorter list of known health risks associated with vaping. Ultimately, vaping is simply too new for us to know the full breadth of its effects.

Secondhand smoke also 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, Dr. Kingsley says. And don't forget that there are many resources that can help, so don't be afraid to talk to a doctor about getting help quitting.

7. Don't pressure your pediatrician

It might feel more productive to do something when your child is sick, but urging your pediatrician to write a prescription for an antibiotic whenever your child has a cold, flu, or sore throat probably won't help with the majority of childhood illnesses. Antibiotics only treat 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, however, 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 of the overuse of antibiotics, and a simple ear infection is more difficult to cure if it's caused by stubborn bacteria that don't respond to standard treatment.

Whenever your child's pediatrician wants to prescribe an antibiotic, make sure they aren't prescribing it solely because they think you want it. "I strongly encourage parents to say, 'Do you think it's really necessary?'" says Dr. Bauchner.

8. Stay up-to-date on recommended vaccinations

Keeping up-to-date on your child's recommended childhood vaccinations can help their immune system stay primed and ready to fight off dangerous pathogens like those that cause meningitis, polio, and chicken pox. Vaccinations work with your child's immune system to teach it to recognize certain bacteria and viruses they might encounter, so they'll be ready to fight them off.

If you have concerns about vaccinations, talk to your child's pediatrician. It's very important to find a pediatrician you can trust who can answer your questions. Your child's pediatrician can help you better understand how vaccinations work, what vaccinations are important for your child, and point you to other helpful resources. And don't forget to stay up-to-date on vaccinations yourself, because a healthy child definitely starts with a healthy parent!

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