10 ways to support kids' immune systems
We all have an immune system that helps to protect us from disease.
In babies and children, the immune system that will serve them throughout their lives is still developing.
This means that for little ones, a healthy diet and good hygiene are key.
We’ll take a look at what the immune system is, why it’s important, how you can support your baby’s immune system, and how you can support your children’s immune system.
In this article, we’ll explore
- 10 ways to support your child’s immune system
- 5 ways to support your baby’s immune system
10 ways to support your child’s immune system
If your child seems to be constantly falling ill from colds and bugs, their immune system may need a helping hand.
By making some small lifestyle changes, you can boost your child’s immune system.
- Fruit and vegetables
We know, we know. Making sure your child gets the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day isn’t easy, especially if your child is a fussy eater.
However, fruit and vegetables are so important for a child’s strong immune response, it’s worth making this a priority.
In particular, aim to include plenty of veg with red, orange and yellow hues as this means they’ll be getting in their vitamin C and carotenoids, which are proven to support the immune system.1,2
For these nutrients, serve up some orange, strawberries, broccoli and if you’re feeling festive – Brussels sprouts!
Here are some tips to get your child eating a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables:
- Shop together
Young children take cues from the mannerisms of their parents, so try to appear excited at the prospect of choosing things at the fruit and veg section of the supermarket. Kids also love to have a choice, so allow your child to pick out the fruit or veg they like the look of.
- Think like a child
Some children are adventurous eaters, but many kids have a food ‘comfort zone’, which straying from can cause distress.
Berries are perfect for children who may object to the texture or look of larger pieces.
If serving your fussy child fruit, begin by serving just four or five small, easy to eat berries like raspberries and blueberries so as not to overwhelm them.
- Change the dialogue
Rather than telling them to eat their broccoli ‘because I say so’, tell them broccoli builds strong bones which they need to play football/ on the climbing frame/ to help care for pets etc.
Children aren’t great at seeing the bigger picture – they tend to respond better when they understand how action might benefit or affect them.
- Creative presentation
Some kids won’t touch a sandwich sliced lengthways – but will happily tuck in if that same sandwich is cut into squares.
So, if they’ve already expressed dislike for a certain fruit or vegetable – don’t give up on it!
Simply cutting it in a different way (e.g. diced peppers instead of strips) can encourage a new way of approaching it.
- Disguise them
If all else fails, try the trick of blending fruit and vegetables into their favourite foods.
Carrots and peppers in pasta sauce, sweet potato baked ‘fries’, cauliflower in the macaroni cheese… there are plenty of ways for parents to get resourceful.
- Oily fish
DHA-rich fish oil, such as that found in oily fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines, is known to be beneficial for the immune system.3
Children should eat one to two servings of oily fish per week.4
Serve oily fish in appealing ways – e.g. tacos, mashed with potato or in pasta. Always remove bones.
Or for an easy school dinner, send them off with some tuna or salmon sandwiches with mayo for a little extra flavour.
A quick and easy way to get the goodness of fruit into your kids is with smoothies.
Whether you choose a pre-made smoothie, a fruit puree pouch or you whip up your own, pack them with a blend of fruit for maximum vitamin power.
You could throw in a little carrot, spinach or cucumber too – just keep it on the down low, your child won’t know!
- Vitamins for kids’ immune systems
If you’ve got a particularly fussy child who isn’t the biggest fan of fruits and veggies, try getting them some of the best vitamins for kids’ immune systems.
A daily vitamin can top up your child’s diet and help fill in the gaps in their nutrition in order to boost immunity.
Choose a sugar-free chewy gummy multivitamin that includes vitamin C – a potent antioxidant that contributes to immune defence.5
- Quality sleep
Sleep is key for a strong immune system both in childhood and throughout life.6
Use this guide for the number of hours children need at each stage of development:
- Toddlers aged 1 – 2 need 11 – 14 hours
- Kids 3 – 5 years need 10 – 13 hours
- Kids 6 – 12 need 9 – 12 hours
- Teens 13 – 18 need 8 – 10 hours7
If you have older and younger children, staggered bedtimes might be needed.
- Teach good hygiene
Germs can be spread easily, teach your child to catch any sneezes in tissue and cover their mouth when they cough.
Teach children the importance of washing their hands before meals and after going to the toilet. This will kill disease-causing pathogens before they have a chance to spread.
If someone in your household does become ill, you should make sure you disinfect surfaces even more than usual and that you wash towels and bedding at 65°C.
- Get active together
Being active supports immunity and reduces the risk of becoming ill.8
Health guidelines recommend that children aged 5 – 16 should do 60 minutes of aerobic exercise every day.9
Encourage children to join a football or rugby team, take up athletics, go trampolining or sign up for dancing lessons.
Not all lessons cost much – look online or hit social media to discover local options.
Alternatively, you could do something together as a family, simply walking to your local park for a kickabout or going for a bike ride after school is perfect.
- Get strict about smoke
Smoking weakens our immunity against infections.10
This is also true of second-hand smoke, so if someone in the household smokes, your children are breathing in more than 7000 harmful chemicals every day.11
If someone in the household smokes, it should always be done outdoors, away from children, with all doors and windows shut.
Try to stop – children of smokers are more likely to become smokers themselves.12
- Minimise sugar
A diet too high in refined sugar is bad news for the immune system.13
This is partly because too much sugar can interfere with your body’s uptake of immunity superhero vitamin C.14
Children aged 4 – 6 should have no more than 19g added sugar per day, children 7 – 10 should not exceed 24g.15
- Help to reduce their stress
The past couple of years have been hard for all of us, but it’s easy to forget how it might have taken a toll on our kids.
Children’s mental health needs to be taken into consideration too.
This may also keep them fighting fit and better protected from any viruses at bay, as chronic stress has been shown to negatively impact the immune system.16
5 ways to support your baby’s immune system
Babies are born with passive immunity, which means the mother has passed her antibodies to them during pregnancy. However, this only lasts a few weeks.17
Here’s how to keep your baby’s immune system strong.
- Breastfeed, if you can
Breastfeeding is beneficial for your baby’s immunity and reduces their risk of infections.18
- Take a vitamin supplement yourself
Taking a vitamin supplement while breastfeeding can help ensure your breastmilk contains enough immunity-boosting nutrients.
Omega 3, vitamin B12 and vitamin K are all known to have breastfeeding benefits.19,20,21,22,23
- Take them outside
Take your baby into the open air every day. This helps regulate their sleep cycle (circadian rhythm) which can help them sleep better at night.24
- Vitamin D supplement
It is recommended that babies take a daily supplement containing 7-8.5 micrograms of vitamin D.25
Vitamin D plays a key role in a healthy immune system.26
- Wash their hands for them
They’re too young to do it for themselves, so make sure you wash your baby’s hands to keep pathogens at bay, especially after they’ve been in public, to the nursery, or after playing with pets.
- Nothing fishy about it: Fish oil can boost the immune system -- ScienceDaily
- Vitamin C and Immune Function (nih.gov)
- The compelling link between physical activity and the body's defense system - ScienceDirect
- Physical activity guidelines for children and young people - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
- Impacts of cigarette smoking on immune responsiveness: Up and down or upside down? (nih.gov)
- Smoking and Overall Health (cdc.gov)
- Parent and Child Cigarette Use: A Longitudinal, Multigenerational Study (nih.gov)
- Effects of sugar, salt and distilled water on white blood cells and platelet cells: A review | Janjua | Journal of Tumor (ghrnet.org)
- How Sugar Sabotages Your Vitamin C Intake - LivOn Labs
- Sugar: the facts - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
- How long do babies carry their mother's immunity? - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
- Benefits of breastfeeding - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
- Are breast-fed infants vitamin K deficient? - PubMed (nih.gov)
- The benefits of outdoor play for children | NCT
- Vitamins for children - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
- Vitamin D and the Immune System (nih.gov)