Ages and Stages: Building a Healthy Immune System

While we can’t control every cold that comes along, we can help prevent and fight illness by helping children build strong immune systems. A network of cells, tissues and organs that work together to protect the body, the immune system fights off infectious bacteria, viruses and parasites that make us sick. Strengthening immunity is a holistic process that involves nutrition, exercise, stress reduction and other factors. Here are some ways to build immunity from the start and impact wellness throughout life.

Ages 0–1: How a baby is born can have a lifelong impact on immunity. Studies show that babies born by C-section are not exposed to certain protective bacteria and are at greater risk for developing illnesses such as asthma, Celiac disease and type 1 diabetes. However, no matter the birth, babies who breastfeed tend to have stronger immune systems. Breastfeeding for even a few weeks helps protect babies from disease by passing along the mother’s antibodies. Studies suggest that breastfeeding influences the development of the immune system and its protection against disease, for life. To get full nutritional and immunity-boosting benefits, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding for the first year of a baby’s life.

Ages 1–3: Continuing to breastfeed offers ongoing benefits for building your child’s immunity.Serving plenty of vegetables and fruits, making sure they are active for at least one hour every day, protecting from exposure to toxins such as secondhand smoke and pesticides, and making sure they get plenty of rest are all ways to help children stay healthy. If your child does get sick, be aware that using antibiotics when they aren’t necessary – as is the case with most colds that are caused by viruses – may actually hurt immunity. Due to frequent and recurring usage of antibiotics, antibiotic-resistant bacteria have emerged and they are more difficult to treat. Talk to your pediatrician about other options for helping your child feel better and work on creating a peaceful home environment for your child; stress can also weaken your child’s immune system.

Ages 3–5: Daycare and preschool are teeming with germs, but you can teach preschoolers to frequently wash their hands with soap to stop those germs from spreading. Boost immune systems with a balanced diet that includes probiotics, such as yogurt or kefir. Walnuts, fruits and vegetables containing Vitamin C (e.g., broccoli and citrus) and lean meats (which contain zinc) are especially helpful for building immune systems. Practicing self-soothing techniques, such as deep breathing or yoga, also helps strengthen immunity.

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