As the first day of school creeps closer, parents may be dreading the regularly scheduled sicknesses that come with having a child in class with 20 others. To avoid this cycle, it’s important to know how to improve your child’s immune system, and how early you need to start. Hopefully with pediatrician-sourced tips, back-to-school season doesn’t have to be back-to-sickness season, too.
Randy Thornton, MD, pediatrician at Jacksonville Pediatrics and Wolfson Children’s Hospital of Jacksonville in Florida, tells Romper in an interview that he gives parents the same advice each year about how to keep their child out of the school nurse’s (and pediatrician’s) office. “What I always preach is ‘the big three’ to boost your immune system: eating well, sleeping well, and exercise. They call it a heart healthy lifestyle, but it also works for healthy brain function, healthy immune system, and healthy emotions,” he says. “If you’re hungry or feeling like a slug, you’re going to get sick more often.”
Anumeha Bhalla, MD, pediatrician at St. Joseph Health in Irvine, California, tells Romper in an interview that eating a healthy diet isn’t just a sweeping recommendation. It’s actually proven to help.
“Definitely focusing on a healthy diet all the time helps, and eating fruits and veggies will help keep the immune system strong. Studies have shown people who eat these more get sick less than those who don’t eat fruits and veggies.”
About that healthy diet… since not all children are big on fruits and veggies, will supplements provide the same support to the immune system? Here, Thornton and Bhalla offer different advice. Bhalla says to focus on whole foods your child will eat, while Thornton says supplements can’t hurt.
“There is a notion that using supplements or multivitamins will help you get better soon, but I don’t think it works that way,” Bhalla says. “What you need is these vitamins and minerals from food. I would recommend focusing on a healthy diet over those. When you actually are sick, research hasn’t backed up that taking this much vitamin C will help you get rid of it. Go for whole foods instead of relying on supplements. Yogurt is a good snack for kids because it does contain some probiotics, which are healthy germs. Healthy gut bacteria help fight illness.”
“Usually you should get an adequate amount of vitamins and minerals from diet alone, but so many kids are picky eaters, and then a multivitamin is a great idea. Your body doesn’t make those naturally, so you have to get them through diet,” Thornton explains. “Personally, I always recommend when you get sick to just drink fluids and some chicken soup, get a little bit of exercise, and get lots of sleep.”
Next on the list of immunity boosting strategies is making sure your child gets enough sleep. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends children 3 to 5 years of age sleep 10 to 13 hours per 24 hours, including naps. Children ages 6 to 12 years should get nine to 12 hours of sleep per 24 hours, and teens require eight to 10 hours.
“I feel like we underestimate the importance of a good sleep,” says Bhalla. “There’s a strong link between restorative sleep and the immune system.”
Bhalla adds that 30 to 60 minutes of exercise per day is recommended and should be the goal for most children. Thornton notes that this exercise can usually be in the form of play or a hobby. Better yet, it can include the whole family. “You burn more calories walking 10 steps than doing 10 push-ups, so it doesn’t have to be strenuous. Get them out with friends riding bikes, walk the dog as a family, that sort of thing,” Thornton says.
Of course, even when diet, sleep, and exercise recommendations are met and your child’s immune system should be a veritable fortress, sickness can still strike. In those cases, both docs say to practice good hand washing and have everyone cover their faces when coughing or sneezing.
For parents who have little ones not quite old enough to be going back to school, Bhalla and Thornton agree that building strong immune systems actually starts early in life. As babies and toddlers experience new people and environments, their immune system has the chance to create antibodies against new germs. This is commonly referred to as the Hygiene Hypothesis.
“When a baby is exposed early in life, these pathogens will make them sick, but in the long run you start getting immunity and antibodies, which then help them in the future to protect them from other illnesses and infections,” explains Bhalla. “There is some research to back it up. In 2010, a Canadian study was published that said kids who started day care — large ones, not the kind in homes with five or six children — before 2.5 years of age had fewer respiratory illnesses and ear infections between ages 5 and 8, though in those initial years they did get sick more than kids who stayed home. Come high school, they’ll all pretty much be the same, but it does provide some benefit for the first few years of elementary school.”
Helping a child encounter new pathogens doesn’t mean you have to dunk them in a dirty ball pit or expose them to other sick children on purpose. Thornton says it’s just about letting them encounter a little dirt and debris here and there.
“It does have an advantage, but it’s controversial exposing children to germs. Sometimes those germs you get exposed to earlier can be helpful. If you’re in day care you’re going to get sick a lot more than if you were not, but it does kind of boost your immune system. It can actually be an advantage, but the problem is you never wish an illness on anybody. Having a dog at home gets you exposed to germs, and in that light, it boosts your immune system and cuts down the risk of allergies. So, a clean environment is good, but it doesn’t have to be hospital-grade sterile.”