The process of building your immunity is fascinating and complex, says paediatrician Dr Natasha Padayachee-Govender. “Foetal immune systems develop in a sterile and protected environment, so they lack antigens – the substance that stimulates the production of the antibodies necessary to help fight off infections,” she explains. “Soon after birth, newborns are exposed to the ‘hostile world’ of bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites, and must immediately start to defend themselves.” Unfortunately, getting sick is part of growing up. Although it may sound all doom and gloom, this is not all bad news, because children actually strengthen their immune systems when they’re battling bugs and germs. While germ-proofing your child is an impossible task, there are still many ways you can help boost your little one’s immunity.
Get off to a good start
Parents want to do everything possible to protect their little ones and Dr Padayachee-Govender suggests implementing the following infection-control strategies right from the start:
- Remember that vaccines help protect both you and your unborn child. Maternal immunisation (before or during pregnancy, or immediately after delivery) is known as the “cocoon effect” and has emerged as a simple, safe and cost-effective strategy to protect your newborn. Consult your gynaecologist/obstetrician about the latest recommendations.
- Breast milk contains antibodies, immunoglobulins, cytokines and a host of amazing immune factors to help build up your newborn’s immunity.
- Wash your hands religiously before handling your newborn and make sure people who are unwell delay their visits until they have recovered.
- Instil good habits, such as hand washing before and after handling food and going to the toilet, as well as sneezing or coughing into elbows.
- Providing a healthy, well-balanced diet that contains a variety of fruit and vegetables will provide your little one with all those essential vitamins and nutrients. Offering plenty of water and reducing the amount of refined sugar in your diet will also go a long way in keeping your tot healthy.
- Make sure your child is up to date with his vaccination schedule. The flu vaccine is recommended for babies from the age of six months.
- Avoid unnecessary use of antibiotics: Remember that they’re only used to treat bacterial infections and not viruses, so when prescribed for your child, always confirm the diagnosis. There’s been an increase in inappropriate antibiotic use that could lead to unnecessary side effects and antibiotic resistance.
- Avoid passive (second hand) smoke and polluted environments.
- When choosing a crèche or playschool, discuss their infection-control policies such as labelling of bottles, position of the changing station and kitchen, and their sick child protocol.
Set a good example
Dr Padayachee-Govender also recommends implementing the following healthy lifestyle practices to help boost immunity for the whole family:
- Exercise together: Physical activity does wonders for the immune system, as does family bonding time. Go for family walks, play together, and share time in fun and laughter.
- Get a good night’s sleep: This means not only setting a bed time, but also creating a night-time routine that facilitates good sleeping patterns for the whole family, such as avoiding electronic devices before bedtime.
- Create a calm, stress-free environment: This means holistic wellbeing focusing on mind, body and spirit. Keeping your home happy and calm may aid good health and wellbeing.
Should I give my child a supplement?
According to Dr Padayachee-Govender, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that exclusively, or partially, breastfed infants receive supplemental vitamin D (400 IU/d) starting soon after birth and continuing until weaning to vitamin D–fortified whole milk (1 litre per day). Supplemental iron is also recommended from four months until the introduction of iron-containing foods, usually at six months. Children should be screened at one year for iron deficiency and iron deficiency anaemia. In addition, she says, “The latest peer-reviewed, evidence-based research published in JAMA states: ‘Healthy children consuming a well-balanced diet do not need multivitamin/multi-mineral supplements and they should avoid those containing micronutrient doses that exceed the RDA (recommended daily allowances).’ Remember that micronutrients in food are typically better absorbed by the body and are associated with fewer potential adverse effects,” she continues. “A healthy diet provides an array of nutritionally important substances in biologically optimal ratios as opposed to isolated compounds in highly concentrated form. Research shows that positive health outcomes are more strongly related to dietary patterns and specific food types than to individual micronutrients. Health supplementation has far-reaching benefits when specific nutritional deficiencies are identified and appropriately treated. Probiotics, vitamin C, elderberry, echinacea and zinc have been researched in small clinical trials and show some favourable responses in certain adult trials. Large-scale clinical trials in the paediatric population are needed. Note that a product marketed as ‘natural’ isn’t automatically safe, so always discuss any form of supplementation for your child with your healthcare provider.”