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Supporting your child’s immune system

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Wondering when your child’s immune system hits full speed, and what you can do to support that journey? Here’s what you need to know

The immune system and kids health

Among the many differences that exist between kids and adults, it’s important to know that our immune systems are not exactly the same. 

Proof? A good example is the fact that while adults usually get between two and four colds a year, children can get as many as 10 in the same time frame, simply because they aren’t immune to as many of the 200-plus different viruses that cause colds.

So, what builds immunity? We’re all born with some natural immunity called ‘innate immunity’ – for example, the skin acts as a physical barrier to germs. 

There’s also something called ‘passive immunity’, which is borrowed from another source and only lasts for a short time, such as the antibodies that breast milk contains and are passed from mum to bub if they’re breastfed. These antibodies give a baby temporary immunity to diseases their mum has been exposed to.

But it’s something called ‘adaptive immunity’ that develops throughout our lives. 

At what age is a child’s immune system fully developed?

The immune system continues to develop and change as we age, evolving from an immature and developing immune response in infants and children, through to immune function that’s typically optimal in adolescents and young adults. 

Immunity – particularly adaptive immunity – also starts to gradually decline as we reach an older age.

What to teach your kids

While it’s not possible to completely prevent or avoid cold-causing viruses, and children can get between five and 10 colds a year, there are things you can teach your kids to do – and not do – in order to help them stay well and support their immune system health.

A good place to start is by explaining that while germs are everywhere and many are harmless, some of them can make people unwell. And that even though germs are so small you can’t see them without a microscope, people can pass them onto each other.

Then let your kids know that there are things they can do to help stop those germs from spreading and to avoid catching a cold themselves.

Here are 4 key things to teach them – and don’t forget to show them, too. Once you’re across the habits mentioned below, strive to set an example for your kids by making the effort to do all these things yourself.

Do them all the time, so that they become habit. Not only are they helpful cold prevention tips  for everyone, but especially when you’re with your kids.

1. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue, or into your elbow when you cough or sneeze

Explain that one way cold and flu germs spread from one person to another is through coughs and sneezes. Then, make sure they know that if they need to cough or sneeze, it’s really important to do it into a tissue rather than into the air or their bare hands.

And they should put the tissue in the bin straight away and not to stuff them in their pockets or up their sleeves! If they don’t have a tissue, they should cough or sneeze into their elbow.

2. Wash your hands

Let your kids know that another way you can catch a cold or the flu is by touching something germy and then touching your face, or using your hands to eat something.

Explain that this means it’s really important that they wash their hands a lot, but especially after playing outside or with other kids, before you eat or touch your food, and after you’ve coughed or sneezed.

Though you’ve no doubt already taught them that it’s vital to wash their hands after going to the toilet , it’s a good idea to reinforce this again here. In order to have the desired effect, it’s important that your kids know how to wash their hands properly, which includes washing them for at least 20 seconds.

3. Keep your fingers off your face

At least until they’ve had a chance to wash their hands! Encourage them to get into the habit of avoiding touching their eyes, nose or mouth until their hands are squeaky clean.

4. Avoid germy sharing

Don’t discourage sharing full stop (because that’s a good behaviour for kids to learn!) but using the information above about germs and how bugs spread, encourage your children not to share items that come into contact with their mouths, like straws, cups, cutlery and bottles.

3 ways to support your kid’s immune system

Here are 3 simple things you can do to support kid’s immune system health, particularly during times when it might need a little extra support.

1. Make sure they get enough sleep

A lack of it affects the body’s ability to produce things called cytokines – proteins that help fight infection and reduce inflammation.

Ideally, per 24 hours, children who are:
  • Up to 12 months of age need 12 to 16 hours sleep
  • Between one and two need 11 to 14 hours sleep
  • Between three and five need 10 to 13 hours sleep
  • Between six and 12 need nine to 12 hours sleep
  • Between 13 and 18 need eight to 10 hours sleep

2. Encourage a healthy diet

It’s the simplest way to ensure that your child is getting enough of the vitamins that play a crucial role in maintaining good health and a strong immune system.

Your child’s age determines how many serves of vegetables, fruit, wholemeal grains and cereals, lean meats and proteins, and dairy foods they should aim to eat each day.

Eating nutritious food is one of the things that will help your child’s immune system  remain healthy. As well as explaining this to them, ask them to help you cook at home, because research shows that kids who do that are more likely to eat and enjoy fruit and vegetables. There are even a variety of healthy snacks that kids can make for themselves.

Teach your kids (or remind them!) about how much fruit and veggies they should eat and try new strategies to get them to eat fresh produce like raw veggies with their sausages. Another great way to encourage healthy eating is to use vegetables as a healthy swap for family favourites like our super popular green sausage rolls.

Check out the kids’ immune boosting recipes in our collection of healthy recipes made especially for kids.

3. Look after their gut health

Research has demonstrated the link between gut health and the development of a healthy immune system during childhood.

A few tweaks to their diet to include high-fibre and fermented foods are great ways to boost your kid’s gut health.