Winter is a time when people bunker up, but germs run wild. In early childhood education and care services (ECE), illness can spread particularly quickly, with children playing in close contact, sharing toys and equipment, and forgetting their cough and sneeze etiquette.
There’s no sure-fire way to avoid childcare sickness, but the good news is that we can take steps to limit the impact of lurgies and strengthen young bodies to better fight off winter germs.
To help you do this, here are some key ways to boost your child’s immune system as the days shorten, temperatures drop and germs get their 30 seconds of fame!
Ensure your child eats a variety of healthy foods
A balanced diet is essential all year round, and there are certain foods that build the immune system, while delivering the rich nutrients that children need for healthy growth and development.
When planning your child’s meals, make sure you serve up vegetables, fruit, breads and cereals, dairy and protein. Health Direct outlines the recommended serves of each food here, and it’s important that pre-schoolers eat at least two serves of vegetables and two of fruit each day, and that school children consume at least three serves of vegies and two of fruit.
When it comes to immune-boosting foods, Super Healthy Kids recommends:
- Almonds, because they’re ‘packed with vitamin E and manganese, a strong immune-boosting duo.’
- Berries, which are full of antioxidants to help the immune system keep fighting. It’s good to know that frozen berries are just as nutritious as fresh ones.
- Low sugar or no sugar yoghurt, which contains probiotics that stimulate the immune system. Keep in mind that sugary yoghurt does the opposite, so steer clear of this.
- Salmon, which is rich in the omega 3 fatty acids that help with brain development and reduce inflammation ‘which increases airflow and protects the lungs from colds and respiratory infections.’ There is also some research suggesting that these fatty acids ‘may boost the immune system by enhancing the function of immune cells.’
- Eggs, which contain immune-boosting nutrients like vitamin B and selenium, as well as vitamin D. Low vitamin D levels can leave a person more susceptible to illness, and with sunshine hard to come by in winter, eggs are that rare food which naturally contains vitamin D.
- Broccoli, which is bursting with nutrients and contains vitamins C, A, E and a number of antioxidants that all boost the immune system.
- Spinach is another green machine that contains lots of vitamins and minerals that boost the immune system, including vitamins A, E, C and K, folate, manganese, zinc, selenium and, of course, iron.
- Sweet potato, which is an excellent source of vitamin C and is also high in beta-carotene, ‘which studies have shown to increase the number of white blood cells’ and help the body fight off illness.
- Seeds, including pumpkin, sunflower and flax, which deliver vitamin E, zinc and omega 3 fats to your child’s body and boost their immune system.
- Oats, because they contain beta glucans – a part of fibre that activates the ‘killer cells’ that fight bacteria, viruses and other intruders in the human body.
Keep in mind that whole nuts and large seeds shouldn’t be fed to under-fives because they’re a choking risk and whatever menu you choose remember variety is the key to keeping immune systems strong.
A balanced diet will give your child the nutrients they need, but there are immune-boosting vitamins and supplements for children which may be helpful during the cold and flu season (especially if you have a picky eater).
Ensure your child gets adequate, quality sleep
Sleep plays a role in the proper functioning of all body systems and not getting enough good quality sleep can leave people more susceptible to illness. This is because the immune system releases proteins called cytokines during sleep, some of which help the body fight infections and inflammations. If a person doesn’t get enough sleep, their body produces less of these cytokines and can be more likely to develop illness, and slower to recover from it.
The Sleep Health Foundation recommends these total hours of sleep for children, spread across the night and day (including at child care):
- Newborn (0 to 3 months) – 14 to 17 hours
- Infant (4 to 11 months) – 12 to 15 hours
- Toddler (1 to 2 years) – 11 to 14 hours
- Preschool (3 to 4 years) – 10 to 13 hours
- School age (5 to 13 years) – 9 to 11 hours
Ensure your child gets enough exercise
Various studies (including a recent one by The University of Bath) have found that regular exercise plays an important role in helping to maintain a healthy immune system.
The Government’s physical activity guidelines recommend that toddlers and preschoolers engage in at least three hours of active play spread throughout each day. While school-aged children should be getting at least one hour of ‘moderate to vigorous physical activity’ per day, three days a week.
Exercise burns off energy, brightens your child’s mood, eases stress (which can also impact their immunity) and gives them a chance to practice physical and social skills, so it’s a win-win for young bodies.
Ensure your child is up to date with their immunisations
Although you don’t have to vaccinate your child before sending them to child care, vaccines do protect against the spread of serious diseases, like measles and whooping cough.
Vaccines use the body’s immune system to build resistance to certain infections, and the Immunisation Schedule provides a series of free vaccines to babies and children.
Encourage good health and hygiene practices
As well as taking steps to strengthen your child’s immune system, it’s also important to remind them about the importance of good hygiene at home, at care and everywhere.
Washing hands with soap and water and coughing/sneezing into a tissue or elbow are simple ways to help prevent the spread of illness, and if your child is sick, you should keep them home from care.
This can be inconvenient for working parents, but rest will help your child recover more quickly, and keeping them home will keep all those lively germs away from other children and educators. Happy winter!