To start, if you feel like your child is always sick, you are not alone. Office visits and hospitalizations for common pediatric illnesses are at the highest we’ve seen in years; certainly since before the pandemic began.
What is normal anyway?
In a typical year, most parents can expect a child, who is in their first one to two years of daycare or school, to get sick with about 10-12 viruses per year (on average), including GI, respiratory and other viral illnesses. This averages out to about once per month. These numbers improve over time, with repeated exposures, as a child gets older and their immune system has been primed for these common illnesses. Over the last one and a half years, and especially the last few months, parents are experiencing back-to-back illnesses for their children. It has made it seem like their kids are always sick.
This current reality has come to us as a result of many factors, but this article is going to focus on what you can do as a parent to best support your child’s immune system in its current state. Immunity is a very complicated topic, that I will not pretend to be an expert in. However, there are some basic interventions that will most certainly support the immune function of any child, no matter their current health status or underlying health conditions.
How to boost your child’s immune system
Sleep is a keystone of immune function and support. Sleep and our immune systems have a bidirectional relationship. Meaning, high quality sleep contributes positively to our innate and adaptive immunity, and chronic sleep loss is associated with suppressed immune function. Therefore, getting an adequate amount of high-quality sleep in 24 hours is key to optimal immune function.
Offering your child a diet rich in whole foods such as fruits and vegetables, is the best immune support you can offer. Don’t forget to offer an adequate amount of water, protein and healthy fats in the diet as well. I typically don’t recommend many supplements, but if you feel that your child is extremely picky, I recommend speaking with your child’s pediatric provider about multivitamin and other supplement options.
Some childhood vaccines are intended to protect a child for life once the primary series is completed. Others, like the influenza vaccine, require yearly boosters to keep the immune system properly primed to fight severe infection. If you have questions or concerns about vaccines for your child, please have a conversation with your child’s pediatric provider. The CDC is also a great resource.
Basic and proper hand hygiene is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of infection. Proper handwashing, with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds, adequately removes germs from hands. Another safe and effective removal method is using an alcohol-based sanitizer, with at least 60% alcohol. According to CDC, proper hand hygiene can prevent up to about 30% of GI illnesses and 20% of respiratory illnesses.
Certainly exercise, laughter and play are important factors in stress reduction, improved sleep and improved immune function as well. We are still learning the mechanisms behind these important lifestyle factors, as they relate to immunity.
You won’t be able to protect your child against every virus out there and really, you don’t want to protect them completely. Exposure to illnesses is an important part of developing a healthy and well-functioning immune system. However, know that there are things that you can do to support your child’s immune function when they are exposed, and possibly mitigate severe illness.
Please know that you are not alone, even when it feels like it. This is a season that will pass. Ask for help and use the resources available to you. You are the best parent for your child, and you are doing a great job taking care of your child, using the knowledge and skills you have available to you at this moment.