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childrens-health-immune-system

10 ways to support kids' immune systems

08 Sep 2022 • 6 min read

We all have an immune system that helps to protect us from disease.

In babies and children, the immune system that will serve them throughout their lives is still developing.

This means that, for little ones, a healthy diet, good hygiene, and an up-to-date vaccination profile are key.

We’ve received guidance from The Children’s Nutritionist Sarah Almond-Bushell, who’s a registered dietician and children’s immunity expert.

She has collaborated with the NHS, Aldi, Tommee Tippee, and more to help spread awareness on children’s health – and today she’s with us at H&B.

Sarah takes us through:

  • What the immune system is and why it’s important
  • Vaccination for children and babies
  • How you can support your baby’s immune system
  • How you can support you child’s immune system

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H&B's guide to children's immunity

10 ways to support your child’s immune system

If your child seems to be constantly falling ill from colds and bugs, it may be because their immune system isn’t yet mature enough to fend off these germs.

By making some small lifestyle changes, you can support your child’s developing immune system. Seek advice from your child’s GP if you’re concerned.

  1. Vegetables

We know, we know. Making sure your child gets the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day isn’t easy, especially if they’re a fussy eater.

However, vegetables are so important for a child’s strong immune response; it’s worth making this a priority.

Aim to include plenty of veg with red, orange, and yellow hues or dark green colours as this means they’ll be getting in their vitamin C and carotenoids, which are proven to support the immune system.1,2

Serve up some orange peppers, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli – and Brussels sprouts, if you’re feeling festive!

Eating vegetables doesn’t come naturally to most children because of their bitter flavours. Here are some tips to help your child become familiar with vegetables:

  • Shop together

Young children take cues from their parents, so try to appear excited at the prospect of choosing things in the fruit and veg section of the supermarket.

Kids also love to be independent, so allow your child to pick out the fruit or veg they like the look of for dinner.

  • Think like a child

Young children make their decisions about food based on what it looks like.

Food manufacturers and supermarkets know this, which is why brightly coloured packets with cartoon characters are placed at children’s eye level as you walk around the shops.

And when you know this, you can make food fun too:

  • Use cookie cutters to make flower-shaped cucumber
  • Choose a range of different coloured fruit and veg and arrange them like a rainbow
  • Make cauliflower sheep and broccoli trees

When food is fun, it’s interesting, and when it’s interesting it has a better chance of being eaten.

  • Change the dialogue

Rather than telling them to eat their broccoli or bribing with a dessert, try not to make any comment on your child’s eating performance at all.

Often, our words of encouragement actually stop children from eating because they feel under pressure.

And pressure causes a spike in adrenaline, which switches appetite off.

  • Repeated Exposure

Learning to like food is actually a 32-step process that starts with the sensory system.

This means that children often need to be exposed to food time and time again before they will decide to try it.

Helping you prepare and cook food is a really great way to offer this exposure in a low-pressure way.

Children as young as 1 can help wash veggies or tear lettuce, and older children can help peel and grate carrots or chop salad.

  • Disguise them – but be honest

If you really need to, you can disguise food by blending fruit and vegetables into your child’s favourite foods. But be honest with them about what they’re eating.

If they find a bit of unblended green stuff, that could mean the end of the favourite food too! It could also cause lasting damage on the trusting feeding relationship between you.

You can add carrots and peppers in pasta sauce, sweet potato baked “fries”, cauliflower in macaroni cheese… there are plenty of ways to get resourceful.

Just be mindful that children need to see a food to learn to like it, so hiding foods is not a long-term solution.

Handpicked content: 9 of the best vitamin C fruits and veg

  1. Oily fish

DHA is an essential fatty acid found in oily fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines. It’s known to be beneficial for the immune system.3

It’s called essential because the body can’t make it, so it has to come from food.

Children should eat one to two portions of oily fish per week.4 Serve it in appealing ways – e.g. tacos, mashed with potato, or in pasta. Always try to remove bones.

For an easy school lunch, send them off with some mackerel or salmon sandwiches with mayo for a little extra flavour.

Unfortunately, tuna doesn’t count as an oily fish, and neither does white fish like cod or haddock.

  1. Fruit

Just like veg, fruit is another abundant source of immune-supporting nutrients. Most children will happily eat fruit because it’s sweet.

Citrus fruits are particularly high in vitamin C, which is thought to increase the production of white blood cells (which fight off infection). Try oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, or clementines.

Kiwi, papaya, and strawberries are all super-high in vitamin C, too.

If your child isn’t keen on eating fruit whole, a quick and easy way to get its goodness in is with smoothies.

Whip up your own in a blender to reduce the free sugars you get in shop-bought versions. You could even throw in a little carrot, spinach, or cucumber for some veggie action too!

Smoothies also make excellent ice lollies when frozen for a child-approved summer treat.

Handpicked content: 6 smoothies to support your immunity

  1. Vitamins for kids’ immune systems

If you’ve got a fussy child who isn’t the biggest fan of fruit and veg, try getting them some of the best vitamins for kids’ immune systems.

A daily supplement can top up your child’s diet and help fill the gaps in their nutrition to support their immunity.

Choose a sugar-free chewy gummy multivitamin that includes vitamin C, a potent antioxidant that contributes to immune defence.5

  1. Quality sleep

Sleep is key for a strong immune system both in childhood and throughout life.6

Use this guide for the number of hours children need at each stage of development:

  • Toddlers aged 1 – 2 need 11 – 14 hours
  • Kids 3 – 5 years need 10 – 13 hours
  • Kids 6 – 12 need 9 – 12 hours
  • Teens 13 – 18 need 8 – 10 hours7

If you have older and younger children, staggered bedtimes might be needed.

  1. Teach good hygiene

One of the main reasons children have more coughs and colds is because they play in close proximity with other children and they haven’t yet mastered hygiene.

Germs can be spread easily, so it’s helpful to teach your child to catch any sneezes in a tissue and to cover their mouth when they cough.

Teach children the importance of washing their hands before meals and after going to the toilet.

These actions will kill bugs and germs and minimize their opportunity to spread.

If someone in your household does become ill, you should make sure you disinfect surfaces even more than usual and that you wash towels and bedding at 65°C.

  1. Get active together

Being active supports immunity and reduces the risk of becoming ill.8

NHS guidelines recommend that children aged 5-16 do 60 minutes of aerobic exercise every day.9

This means exercise that’s enough to make them hot and have rosy cheeks, and teens should feel sweaty.

Encourage children to join a football or rugby team, take up athletics, go trampolining, or sign up for dancing lessons. They’re more likely to maintain exercise they enjoy.

Choose something to do together as a family and be a good role model for your children. Simply walking to your local park for a kickabout or going for a bike ride after school is perfect.

  1. Get strict about smoke

Smoking weakens our immunity against infections.10 

This is also true of second-hand smoke, so if someone in the household smokes, your children are breathing in more than 7000 harmful chemicals every day.11

Ask them to smoke outdoors, away from children, and to keep all doors and windows shut.

And if they can, they should try to stop – children of smokers are more likely to become smokers themselves.12

  1. Minimise sugar

A diet too high in refined sugar is bad news for the immune system.13

This is partly because studies have shown that too much sugar can interfere with your body’s uptake of immunity superhero vitamin C.14

According to the NHS, children aged 4-6 should have no more than 19g added sugar per day, and children 7-10 should not exceed 24g.15

Try to limit the amount of cakes, sweets, chocolate, fizzy drinks, biscuits, and ice cream your children have on a daily basis.

  1. Help to reduce their stress

The past couple of years have been hard for all of us, but it’s easy to forget how it might have taken a toll on our kids.

Children’s mental health needs to be taken into consideration too.

This may also keep them fighting fit and better protected from any viruses at bay, as chronic stress has been shown to negatively impact the immune system.16

  • Sleeping well
  • Exercise
  • Seeing friends
  • Having fun
  • Getting outdoors, and
  • Having a routine

can all help keep stress levels down. Some children may also benefit from mindfulness exercises or journalling, too.

Handpicked content: 21 signs of stress in children & how to help

5 ways to support your babies immune system

Babies are born with passive immunity, which means the mother has passed her antibodies to them during pregnancy. However, this only lasts a few weeks.17

Here’s how to keep your baby’s immune system strong.

  1. Breastfeed, if you can

Breastfeeding is beneficial for your baby’s immunity and reduces their risk of infections.18

  1. Take a vitamin supplement yourself

Taking a vitamin supplement while breastfeeding can help ensure your breastmilk contains enough immunity-boosting nutrients.

Omega 3, vitamin B12 and vitamin K are all known to have breastfeeding benefits.19,20,21,22,23

  1. Take them outside

Take your baby into the open air every day. This helps regulate their sleep cycle (circadian rhythm) which can help them sleep better at night.24

  1. Vitamin D supplement

The NHS recommends that babies take a daily supplement containing 7-8.5 micrograms of vitamin D.25

Vitamin D plays a key role in a healthy immune system.26

  1. Wash their hands for them

They’re too young to do it for themselves, so make sure you wash your baby’s hands to keep pathogens at bay, especially after they’ve been in public, to the nursery, or after playing with pets.

Summary

  • As well as vaccinations, a healthy diet with lots of fresh fruit and veg help keep young immune systems thriving
  • Sleep, exercise and outdoor play are vital for a healthy, growing child
  • Hand hygiene, avoiding cigarette smoke and taking a daily multivitamin will also help kid’s immunity

10 childhood vaccinations and why children need them

Read on to find out about 10 childhood vaccinations and why children need them.

  1. Hib/MenC (1st dose)

At one year of age, babies receive this jab which protects against the bacterial infection Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), and meningitis C.27

  1. MMR (1st dose)

The combined measles, mumps and rubella (aka german measles) vaccine is given at the age of one.

These diseases are highly contagious and can cause serious problems including hearing loss.28

  1. Pneumococcal (PCV) vaccine (2nd dose)

Given when babies are one year, this is the second dose of the shot which protects against pneumonia and other infections caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae.29

  1. MenB (3rd dose)

At one year, the third dose of the MenB vaccine is given, offering protection against meningococcal infection.30

  1. Flu vaccine (every year)

Between the ages of two and 10, children will be offered a vaccine in the form of a nasal spray to protect them from flu every year.31

  1. MMR (2nd dose)

At around 3 years 4 months, children receive the second dose of the MMR jab they first have aged one.

This ensures optimum protection against measles, mumps and rubella (german measles).32

  1. 4-in-1 pre-school booster

At 3 years 4 months, children are offered a jab to help protect against four serious diseases – diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and polio.33

  1. HPV

All boys and girls aged 12 to 13 are offered the HPV vaccine at school, to protect against the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause some cancers.

The 2nd dose is offered six to 24 months after the first dose.34

  1. 3-in-1 teenage booster

At 14 years old, children are offered a booster jab for tetanus, diphtheria and polio.

This is done through the child’s school, at the same time at the MenACWY vaccine.35

  1. MenACWY

In years 9 and 10 at school, children are offered this vaccine which protects against 4 strains of meningococcal bacteria – A, C, W and Y – which cause meningitis and septicaemia.36

Summary

  • In the UK, the NHS offers a comprehensive vaccination programme for babies and children from 8 weeks to 14 years old.
  • It’s important to ensure you take your child to all vaccination appointments.

8 baby vaccinations and why babies need them

Up to one year of age, babies need several vaccinations to offer protection against harmful childhood illnesses.

  1. 6-in-1 vaccine

This arm multi-shot protects against the serious childhood conditions diphtheria, hepatitis B, Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b), polio, tetanus and whooping cough (pertussis).37

This is given at 8 weeks.

  1. Rotavirus vaccine

Rotavirus is an infectious stomach bug that causes diarrhoea and vomiting. Babies are given this vaccine (by mouth, not needle) at 8 weeks.38

  1. MenB

This jab, give in the baby’s thigh, protects against meningococcal infection, which causes life-threatening illnesses like meningitis and sepsis. Babies get this at 8 weeks.39

  1. 6-in-1 vaccine 2nd dose

Given at 12 weeks, this is the second dose of the initial jab a baby receives to protect against diphtheria, hepatitis B, Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b), polio, tetanus and whooping cough (pertussis).40

This second dose is needed for an effective immune response.

  1. Pneumococcal (PCV) vaccine

This vaccine protects against pneumonia and other infections caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae. Babies are given this at 12 weeks.41

  1. Rotavirus vaccine 2nd dose

The second dose of the rotavirus vaccine, as given at 8 weeks, is administered again by mouth to babies at 12 weeks.42

  1. 6-in-1 vaccine (3rd dose)

At 16 weeks, babies receive their third and final dose of the 6-in-1 vaccine, which offers maximum protection against diphtheria, hepatitis B, Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b), polio, tetanus and whooping cough (pertussis).43

  1. MenB (2nd dose)

At 16 weeks, the second and final dose of the MenB vaccine is given, offering protection against meningococcal infection.44

The final say

The infant immune system is a sturdy one, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t need a little extra help every now and then.

So from getting them to eat their fruits and veggies to managing their stress, just refer to our top tips for boosting the immune system in children for a little extra help.

The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.

Last updated: 26 August 2022

Sources

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5707683/
  2. https://www.livescience.com/52487-carotenoids.html
  3. Nothing fishy about it: Fish oil can boost the immune system -- ScienceDaily
  4. School children - British Nutrition Foundation - Page #1
  5. Vitamin C and Immune Function (nih.gov)
  6. Sleep and immune function (nih.gov)
  7. How much sleep do children need? - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
  8. The compelling link between physical activity and the body's defense system - ScienceDirect
  9. Physical activity guidelines for children and young people - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
  10. Impacts of cigarette smoking on immune responsiveness: Up and down or upside down? (nih.gov)
  11. Smoking and Overall Health (cdc.gov)
  12. Parent and Child Cigarette Use: A Longitudinal, Multigenerational Study (nih.gov)
  13. Effects of sugar, salt and distilled water on white blood cells and platelet cells: A review | Janjua | Journal of Tumor (ghrnet.org) 
  14. How Sugar Sabotages Your Vitamin C Intake - LivOn Labs
  15. Sugar: the facts - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
  16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4465119/
  17. How long do babies carry their mother's immunity? - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
  18. Benefits of breastfeeding - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
  19. https://americanpregnancy.org/healthy-pregnancy/first-year-of-life/omega-3-supplements-baby-4582/
  20. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/683264/
  21. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/5352832/
  22. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3948463/
  23. Are breast-fed infants vitamin K deficient? - PubMed (nih.gov)
  24. The benefits of outdoor play for children | NCT
  25. Vitamins for children - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
  26. Vitamin D and the Immune System (nih.gov)
  27. Hib/MenC vaccine overview - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
  28. MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
  29. Pneumococcal vaccine overview - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
  30. MenB vaccine overview - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
  31. Child flu vaccine - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
  32. MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
  33. 4-in-1 pre-school booster overview - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
  34. HPV vaccine overview - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
  35. 3-in-1 teenage booster overview - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
  36. MenACWY vaccine - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
  37. 6-in-1-vaccine-overview - NHS (www.nhs.uk) 
  38. Rotavirus vaccine overview - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
  39. MenB vaccine overview - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
  40. 6-in-1-vaccine-overview - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
  41. Pneumococcal vaccine overview - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
  42. Rotavirus vaccine overview - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
  43. 6-in-1-vaccine-overview - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
  44. MenB vaccine overview - NHS (www.nhs.uk)
 
sarah-bushell

Sarah Almond Bushell

Author

Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist

BSc Hons Nutrition & Dietetics (1999), Diploma in Advanced Dietetic Practice (2006), MPhil Nutrition for children (2015) and SOS Certificated feeding therapist - advanced level (2017 and 2018)

Sarah Almond Bushell is an award-winning Registered Dietitian, ex NHS Consultant child nutritionist of 22 years and founder of The Children’s Nutritionist™ who is working to create a generation of happier, healthier eaters by reduce the stress around food and mealtimes for parents. She is passionate about helping to cut the ties of generational eating habits, fuelled by misinformation and desperation tactics.

Her work has resulted in being asked to consult for brands including Annabel Karmel, Hovis, Heinz Baby, Tommee Tippee, Thermomix and Aptamil. She is a keynote speaker and author having ghostwritten three books for well known personalities as well as writing Love At First Bite, her own weaning book for Thermomix. Sarah has also featured in various magazines and media, helping thousands of parents raise their happy healthy eaters.

In her spare time Sarah can be found in the kitchen, as an ex-baker Sarah enjoys cooking with her teenage children, creating amazing dishes full of flavour for her friends & family.

“Sharing a meal together should be happy, sociable occasions, but for so many families it is fraught with stress, parents anxious that their children are not eating the good stuff on their plates, children anxious that they’re going to be made to eat something they don’t want to. My mission is to help families learn to enjoy eating together, for parents to be reassured, for children to be relaxed, essentially for mealtimes to be a time where happy memories are made.”

Education, Qualifications/Training

  • BSc Hons Nutrition & Dietetics (1999)
  • Diploma in Advanced Dietetic Practice (2006)
  • MPhil Nutrition for children (2015)
  • SOS Certificated feeding therapist - advanced level (2017 and 2018)

Professional Accomplishments

Affiliations/Memberships/Governing bodies

Noteworthy work 

  • Love At First Bite, Vorwerk UK, 2021 
  • Weaning, Annabel Karmel, DK, 2018
  • Baby Led Weaning, Annabel Karmel, Pindock publishing, 2017


Older clinical publications:

  • Poster presentation ‘Self-management of Type 1 Diabetes by a 6 year old child of Profoundly Deaf Parents’. University of Brighton June 2010
  • T Coelho, C Spence, S Almond et al. ‘Self-management of Type 1 Diabetes by a 6 year old child of Profoundly Deaf Parents’ Diabetic Medicine 2009 24 (suppl 1) pp96
  • Professional Consensus Statement on Dietetic Assessment of Children with Special Needs with Faltering Growth June 2007
  • Shaw & Lawson, Clinical Paediatric Dietetics – Chapter 38 Feeding children with Neurodisability. 3rd Edition 2007
  • Peer reviewed document entitled ’Enteral feeding in Children with Severe Cerebral Palsy’ by Christine Carter Former Dietitian at Great Ormond Street Hospital. April 2006
  • Poster presentation of PhD project at European Academy of Childhood Disability Annual conference Nov 2005
  • Stewart L, McKaig N, Dunlop C, Daly H, Almond S. ‘Assessment and monitoring of children with neurodisability on home enteral tube feeding’ Clinical Nutrition Update 2005 vol 10 Issue 1 pp 6-8
  • Presentation entitled ‘Nutrition Screening of Children with Neurodisabilities’ at Nutritional Care of Children’s with Disabilities conference, The Belfry September 2005
  • ‘Challenges in Feeding Children with Neurodisabilities’ Clinical Nutrition, April 2005
  • Presentation of research project at British Society of Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, Watford January 2005
  • Almond S. ‘Nutritional Supplements- Making an informed choices tailored to each patient’ Professional Nurse. 2004 vol 20, No 1, pp 43-46
  • Poster Presentation ‘Design and Validation of a nutrition screening tool for children with physical disabilities and learning difficulties’ at Brighton & Sussex Medical School, Local Research Day December 2003.
     
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