Updated: May 23
Parents have welcomed the long-awaited return to school, albeit with some concerns, because now it’s mid-winter, the cold and flu season, and Covid is still about.
It’s important to realise that children get more infections than adults. Most little ones get around 10 viral respiratory infections annually in their first few years, and the bulk of those occur in the winter months and last for a few weeks. This gives rise to the oft-repeated phrase, ‘little Tom/Sophie’s always sick,’ specially if these viruses trigger off asthma or ear infections. If the child is growing and developing appropriately, then it’s very unlikely that these frequent infections indicate an underlying immune deficiency. It’s usually just part of the deal.
So, the big question is - how can we protect our babies and young ones and turbocharge their immune systems?
Boost immune system while breastfeeding
Speaking of babies, it’s no secret that breastfeeding is an important immune booster. At birth, we receive a copy of our mother’s antibodies as a special bonus opening offer, but after 6 months we have to start making our own. Breastfeeding, especially for that first 6 months, gives us lots more immune protection, and if breastfeeding doesn’t work out for you for whatever reason – and that’s completely OK – even a few days on the breast is valuable.
Give them a healthy diet
Next, a healthy diet is crucial for preventing infections, right? (Who’d have thought?) Feed your kids rainbows, i.e. lots of brightly coloured fruit and vegetables, which contain countless protective nutrients, e.g. orange and red fruits like oranges, mangos, apricots, melon, and veggies like sweet potato, butternut squash, beetroot – all bursting with beta carotene.
Also push whole foods, oats and barley, and dietary sources of zinc and iron like red meat, seafood, nuts and seeds, legumes, dairy and eggs. (I’m aware that Melbourne is Food Allergy Central, this advice is general.) Vitamin C is another immune booster, so lots of citruses, broccoli, red and green capsicum, dark leafy veggies, kiwi fruit, peas, tomatoes and berries.
And don’t forget Vitamin D, so encourage responsible sun exposure. You also find vitamin D in oily fish, eggs, mushrooms and fortified bread and milk.
And, surprise, surprise, try to keep your littlies away from the Big Bad Wolves ie too much Sugar, Fat and Salt.
Healthy gut microbiome
What about the Gut Microbiome, the new rockstar of health? It won’t be news to you that looking after your children’s gut flora is all important. So, try to avoid antibiotics unless absolutely necessary. (Remember they don’t kill viruses, only bacteria, including the good ones.) Probiotics help replenish your gut flora and there are excellent dietary sources e.g. yoghurt (sans sucre) and fermented foods like kimchi, miso and kombucha. ‘Good luck with feeding my toddler that stuff,’ I hear you say. If you do encounter infant consumer resistance, then probiotic supplements can help as well. However, as with vitamins and other nutrients, the best sources of all these goodies are to be found in fresh food, so … persevere.
In case this is all making you drop off – good! We all need plenty of sleep, especially babies and children. Ensuring that they get adequate sleep, particularly your school-age kids will help boost their immune systems. So, establish firm bedtimes and routines and make sure they get plenty of rest. Exercise is important too and is a great activity for the whole family. (Not as easy during a Covid shutdown, but still possible.)
Jab, jab, wake up! Vaccinations are crucial in the prevention of infections too. As well as the standard immunisation schedule, we GPs also suggest you have your babies vaccinated for Meningococcal B (optional, expensive but important). Vaccination for influenza is free for all children from 6 months to 5 years, and we also encourage all children to have this. Of course, this doesn’t protect against the many other cough and cold viruses that sadly have no vaccine.
Don't smoke around your children
Another important tip is don’t let smoke get in their eyes. As in, don’t smoke around your children. Better still, don’t smoke. If your kids are exposed to cigarette smoke, you and I will be seeing a lot of each other because they will get way more ear infections, respiratory complaints and asthma. While smoking is good for business for GPs, we’d prefer you didn’t.
‘Happy Birthday to you … and again with feeling.’ The importance of basic hygiene has been emphasised strongly during this pandemic and hopefully, these practices will endure. So, encourage your children to wash their hands before and after eating, playing and going to the toilet. Get them to wet their hands, soap up and wash vigorously for 20 seconds, long enough to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice. (And the same for you, mum and dad, plus after holding a sick child, wiping a child’s nose, touching crockery and cutlery or changing a nappy.) Then dry your hands with a tissue (then discard) or a fresh clean towel. Hand sanitisers are an alternative. Don’t let your children share cups, cutlery or toothbrushes and make sure they cough and sneeze into their elbows or onto tissues (discard immediately), then, you guessed it, another hand wash. If your children are unwell, don’t send them to childcare, kinder or school. Inconvenient but important.
Of course, you can’t wrap your children in a bubble. They need to spend time outside, play in the dirt (even eat a little dirt), hang out with other kids and play with pets, in order to develop in a healthy way and avoid developing allergies. Plus, exposure to viruses is how they develop their own antibodies to help them combat future infections.
It’s all a question of balance. Dr Bill Bateman is Parents You've Got This GP & Shared Care Dr.
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