7 ways to support your child’s immune system
Eating the right foods can help to strengthen your child’s immune system and prevent colds and flu. Dietician, Emer Delaney offers her top tips for keeping your children healthy
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 and our children become more vulnerable and, as a result, susceptible to colds, flu and other illness.
We’re surrounded by bugs and germs in our everyday lives and this exposure actually strengthens your child’s immune system. There are also other strategies 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 by:
- Breastfeeding, if you can
- Loading up on oily fish
- Eating a rainbow
- Getting gut healthy
- Including everyday superfoods
- Maintaining a healthy sleep schedule
- Supporting with supplements
So, here are my top tips to support your child’s immune system:
1. Breastfeed, if you can
The nutritional and immune-enhancing benefits of breast milk are much discussed. What we’re not told is that breast-feeding, although optimal, doesn’t come easy for many mums. My advice is to try and persevere for as long as you can, but 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.
Breastfeeding, even for a few days, will provide your baby with 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.
2. Load up on oily fish
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.
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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 fish cakes, cod bites or salmon fajitas may help make fish more of a hit at meal times.
Alternative sources include flax and rapeseed oils, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts and green leafy vegetables, but their omega-3 fatty acids are in a less potent 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 a rainbow
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 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. Get gut healthy
With 70-80 per cent of the immune system residing in the gut, there’s a clear link between our gut health and the strength of our immune system. 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 – two- to five-year-olds need about 15g per day.
5. Include everyday superfoods
A healthy diet is all about eating a wide variety of foods. Unfortunately, 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 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
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.
Get help and advice on improving your child’s sleep.
7. Support with supplements
Vitamins are essential to keep our body functioning well, 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 six months to five years receive a vitamin supplement containing vitamins A, C and D every day.
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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.