When working properly, our immune system is designed to fight disease and keep bacteria and viruses at bay. However, if weakened at any time, we become more vulnerable and susceptible to colds, flu and other illness. We’re all surrounded by bugs and germs in our everyday lives and, especially when young, this exposure actually strengthens a child’s immune system. There are other strategies, too, that we can implement to give our kids the support they need to fight off infection.


Read on to discover how to support your child’s immune system:

  • Breastfeed, if you can
  • Load up on oily fish
  • Eat colourful fruit and veg
  • Learn about gut health
  • Aim for a rounded diet
  • Maintain a healthy sleep schedule
  • Teach about hand hygiene
  • Get kids active
  • Help reduce stress
  • Support with supplements, where appropriate

Check out some of our favourite healthy kids' recipes, from our super veg pasta to our butternut squash & chickpea tagine.

Top tips to support your child’s immune system:

1. Breastfeed, if you can

Mother breastfeeding baby

The nutritional and immune-enhancing benefits of breast milk are much discussed. What is less often mentioned, is that breast-feeding, although optimal, doesn’t come easy for many mums. If you aren't able to breastfeed, remember that breast milk isn't essential for a baby to be happy and healthy, and that if it doesn't work out that's fine too.

Breastfeeding, even for a few days, will provide your baby with a rich source of antibodies and white blood cells. These play a key role in the development of a healthy immune system. So, if you are able to breastfeed, then continue for as long as you and your baby are happy to do so.

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2. Load up on oily fish

Blackened salmon fajitas with salad

Omega-3 fatty acids have many health benefits and are found in their most potent form in oily fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, fresh tuna). White fish (like haddock, plaice, cod and coley) also contain some omega-3 albeit in lower doses. Some studies suggest these omega-3 fats may be beneficial for fighting infection in children, especially secondary infection.

Aim to include fish in your child's diet twice a week – one portion oily and the other white. If your child isn't a fan then salmon fingers, potato fishcakes, cod bites or salmon fajitas may help make fish more of a hit at meal times.

Alternative flax and rapeseed oils, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts and green leafy vegetables are also a source of omega-3 fatty acids, it is in a less potent and available form.

Remember, 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.

3. Eat colourful fruit and veg

Fruit skewers

Let little ones enjoy a plentiful array of fruit and vegetables: by eating all the colours of the rainbow, they’ll optimise their intake of different vitamins and minerals, in particular vitamin C and carotenoids. These nutrients have immune-supporting qualities that help the body create the white blood cells that are so important for fighting infection.

Aim to serve your children at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day. Whether they’re fresh, frozen, tinned (in own juice) or dried, they can be incorporated into main meals, puddings, snacks or in a small smoothie.

See our healthy family recipes for more inspiration.

4. Learn about gut health

Little boy eating yogurt

With 70-80% of the immune system residing in the gut, there’s a clear link between our gut health and how robust our immune system is. The early years of life are thought to be especially important for establishing the community of gut bacteria, known as the gut microbiome; this plays a key role in protecting us against infection and building our immune tolerance.

You can support your child’s gut by including fermented foods, like yogurt or fromage frais, as well as fibre. Although children don’t need as much fibre as adults, most still need more than they are currently getting – 2 to 5 year olds need about 15g per day.

Read more about fibre and how to get it from your diet.

5. Aim for a rounded diet

Fruit and vegetables

A healthy diet is all about eating a wide 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 really any better than another. So, make sure you offer your kids a range of wholegrains, meat, fish and legumes in addition to the fruit and vegetables mentioned above.

See our healthy recipes for kids for more inspiration.

6. Maintain a healthy sleep schedule

Child in bed with cuddly toys

It’s well recognised that sleep deprivation can make children more susceptible to illness by reducing a type of immune cell called ‘natural killer cells’. The amount of sleep children need depends on their age and activity levels. As a general rule, newborns need 18 hours a day, toddlers up to 13 hours and 3-12 year olds up to 12 hours a day.

Finds ways to encourage a more restful slumber.

7. Teach them about hand hygiene

One of the most effective ways to limit the spread of bacteria and viruses is to wash hands thoroughly and often. Teach your child to wash their hands before meal times, when they arrive home and after visiting the toilet.

8. Get them active

Kids active

Regular physical activity keeps children healthy and makes them less likely to get sick. The UK government recommends different amounts of exercise depending on a child's age; this can take the form of walking, cycling, playing a sport or simply playing with friends.

9. Help reduce stress

Prolonged stress, in whatever form, may make children less healthy and more prone to infection. Make sure your child has downtime to play and do the things they enjoy and encourage them to talk about anything that might be worrying them.

10. Support with supplements, where appropriate

Vitamins are essential to maintain bodily functions, strengthen the immune system and protect from certain diseases. Young children may not get enough even if they are eating well. This is why, in addition to providing your child with a healthy, balanced diet, the UK Government recommends all children aged 6 months to 5 years receive a vitamin supplement containing vitamins A, C and D everyday.

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How do you help your child stay cough and cold free? Share your experience in the comments below…

This article was last reviewed on 26th September 2023 by Registered Nutritionist, Kerry Torrens.

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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