5 ways to help your child build immunity
Keeping your children healthy is a constant concern. Every year, illnesses circulate through the community, and babies and children are often more vulnerable to serious complications because of that illness. Dietitian Carla Nowicki, RD, offered advice on how to help your child build immunity and stay happy and healthy all year round.
Start with staying active
“One of the best ways to build up immunity in kids is through keeping them active,” said Nowicki. “But what ‘active’ means is going to be different for every kid at every age.”
Nowicki recommended 60 minutes of active play per day. For a toddler, that might mean time spent running around and exploring their environment, as toddlers are usually naturally fairly active and curious about the world around them. Older children might attend swim lessons, go on walks or spend time at the playground or in their backyard.
For teenagers, becoming engaged in active sports like softball, basketball or tennis. Others may want to take up running, swimming or fitness-focused exercise like lifting weights or using a treadmill.
What matters most is encouraging kids to keep moving and get their heart rate up. One side benefit? If you make an effort to keep your kids active, you’re more likely to keep yourself active, too.
Build a healthy diet – at school and at home
“When I suggest encouraging children to maintain a healthy diet, I want to point out that what counts as ‘healthy’ isn’t set in stone,” said Nowicki. “It’s very relative. Your ‘diet’ is the total combination of all the things that you eat.”
Nowicki’s advice for healthy eating at home involves a simple, easy-to-remember phrase: Find four things in every meal.
- Starch or carbohydrate: This could be bread, potatoes, rice, pasta or cereal
- A fat item: Despite bad press, fat isn’t inherently unhealthy in small amounts. Avocado, butter, bacon, cooking oils, sour cream, whole and reduced-fat milk and yogurt and red meat like beef or fatty pork
- Proteins: Think lean meats like chicken and turkey or vegetarian protein sources like tofu, tempeh, beans or nuts like almonds, cashews and walnuts
- Vegetables: Veggies should always make up part of a healthy meal!
One of the most effective ways to build a healthy dinner plate for your child is to offer a little of everything, and let your child make choices. Do they want bell pepper slices or carrot sticks for their vegetable item? Some children may love steamed broccoli with parmesan cheese, while others prefer roasted cauliflower.
Adults and children alike should try to make about one third of their plate a healthy vegetable option, one-third protein, and one-third starch. It’s also a great idea to ‘eat the rainbow’! Try to incorporate as many colors of natural and minimally processed foods as you can into your meals, as that will help build immunity in your child when you take in a better variety of vitamins and minerals.
Multivitamins can help with vitamin deficiency
“Vitamins can definitely help you to get that boost of Vitamin C, D and Zinc, all of which are essential for building a strong immune system,” said Nowicki. “But what type of vitamins your child takes can really make a difference.”
Nowicki recommended chewable vitamins for younger children, as they usually have a better spectrum of vitamins and minerals that gummy vitamins often miss out on. She also suggested that older children and teenagers should take multivitamins in pill form.
But, she said, something is better than nothing. If gummy vitamins are all your child will take, they still help. But the best way to get vitamin C and D is through food and sunlight respectively.
Set up a stellar sleep routine
“Our bodies do a lot of work while we sleep,” said Nowicki, “and sleep deprivation makes you more likely to get sick and to take longer, once you’re ill, to start feeling better.”
One of the best things your child can do to stay healthy is to get plenty of sleep, and you can help them with that by creating an excellent sleeping space and nighttime routine that they can rely on. For younger children, they’ll need about 10–12 hours of sleep, gradually decreasing with age until teenagers, who feel their best with 8–10 hours per night.
To create the best sleeping environment:
- Stick to a nightly routine from a young age. Brush teeth, wash face, read a story to younger children, and say goodnight. Young children are comforted by routine and will fall asleep more easily if they know what to expect.
- Take electronic devices out of the bedroom. Don’t keep a tablet in your child’s room and ask your tween or teen to put their phone in a basket or on a charging cord in a common space like the living room before bed.
- No screentime (whether that’s TV, laptop computer, phones, tablets or any other digital device) for at least an hour prior to bed. This is great advice for parents, too!
Help your child prepare for flu season
“Flu season can be a time of severe illness, and flu shots can help your child experience a mild illness or avoid becoming ill at all,” Nowicki said. “Vaccines offer an incredible way to help your child build immunity or resistance to dangerous illness.”
Flu shots are often free or low cost at your pediatrician’s or in drug stores like CVS or Walgreen’s, so call to make your appointment today.
Remember, COVID-19 shots are available for children starting at six months of age. You can learn more about the COVID-19 shot right here.
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