How to boost your child’s immune system

Eating the right foods can help strengthen your child’s immune system and prevent colds and flu. Read our top tips for keeping your kids healthy this winter.

When working properly, our immune system is designed to fight disease and keep bacteria and viruses at bay. If weakened at any time, we and our children are more vulnerable and susceptible to colds, flu or any serious illness.  We’re surrounded by bugs and germs in our everyday lives and this exposure can actually strengthen our child’s immune system. There are however, other key points that we can implement to give our kids the boost they need to fight infections. 

So, here are my top tips to boost your child’s immune system:

Oily fish

Omega-3 fatty acids have many health benefits and are found in oily fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, fresh tuna), vegetable and rapeseed oils, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, flaxseeds and green leafy vegetables. White fish (like haddock, plaice, cod and coley) also contain some omega-3 albeit in lower doses. Try and include fish in your child's diet twice a week, one portion oily and the other white. 

Some small studies have found omega-3 may also be beneficial for fighting infection in children. If your child isn't a fan of fish then Salmon fingers, potato fish cakes, cod bites or salmon fajitas are all hits at meal times. An important point about nuts – children under five years old should not have whole nuts because of the risk of choking and inhalation. For babies over six months of age, if they don’t have an allergy, nuts can be given but make sure they are finely ground.

Eat a rainbow

Let little ones enjoy the colours of a rainbow when it comes to fruit and vegetables. All fruits and vegetables offer different vitamins and minerals, so it is important that your child gets a good variety, in particular vitamin C and carotenoids which are responsible for the red, yellow and orange hues in many fruits and vegetables. We know these phytonutrients have immune boosting qualities that help the body create more white blood cells which are responsible for fighting infection. Aim to serve your children five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.  Whether they’re fresh, frozen, tinned (in own juice) or dried, they can be incorporated into their main meals, puddings, snacks or small smoothies. See our healthy recipes for kids for more inspiration.  

The secret of sleep

Boost their sleep time. It’s well recognised that sleep deprivation can make children more susceptible to illness by reducing their natural killer cells that help the immune system fight infection. The amount of sleep children need very much depends on their age. As a general rule newborns need 18 hours a day, toddlers up to 13 hours and three to twelve year olds up to 12 hours a day.  

Breastfeeding 

Breastfeeding

If you are able to breastfeed your baby, then continue for as long as you and your baby are happy. We often hear about the rich nutritional and immune enhancing benefits of breast milk and are all encouraged to breastfeed our newborns. What we’re not told, is that it is very difficult and it doesn’t come easy to many mums. So my advice to you is to try and persevere for as long as you can, but to remember that breastfeeding isn't essential for a baby to be happy and healthy, and that if it doesn't work out that's fine too. Even if it’s for a few days, your baby will receive the rich source of anti-bodies and white blood cells found in breast milk. These will be essential for the development of a healthy developing immune system.

The truth about superfood

Superfood

A healthy diet is all about eating a variety of foods and not concentrating on one specific ‘magic superfood’.  We know there is no such thing as a superfood and one fruit, vegetable or grain isn’t any better than another. So make sure you offer your kids a range of wholegrains, meat, fish, legumes in addition to the fruit and vegetables mentioned above.

There is no specific food that will prevent your kids from getting colds or flu, however you can still make sure their diet is optimised and full of goodness, which is essential to developing an immune system that is healthy and remains strong.

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This article was published on the 15 October 2016. Emer Delaney BSc (Hons), RD has an honours degree in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Ulster. She has worked as a dietitian in some of London's top teaching hospitals and is currently based in Chelsea.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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