Our children may appear healthy when they are playing, laughing, or running at full speed around the neighborhood, but what happens when they come in for the night and quickly develop a fever? The truth is that they are new to this world, and their bodies are still developing and growing, so their immune systems are more fragile than you can imagine.
Lucia was a beautiful 7-year-old with honey eyes and brown hair, but was suspiciously thin and had a cough she just couldn’t shake. In fact, her cough was so intense that there were times everyone thought her chest would burst.
She wasn’t asthmatic and doctors were able to rule out allergic bronchitis and pneumonia because she was not getting better despite antibiotics. On the contrary, she was getting worse. According to her mother, Lucia had all her vaccinations, thus ruling out infectious diseases.
One day, however, after having a heart to heart with her mother, her doctor discovered that Lucia was not actually fully vaccinated – she was missing the pertussis vaccine!
You can imagine the doctor’s shock. A fragile immune system coupled with lackluster bodily defenses due to missing vaccines is a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, Lucia received the treatment she needed to get better and, several days later, she was discharged from the hospital.
Lucia’s story paints a clear picture of just how important vaccines can be. It shows that the first step to protecting a child’s immune system is to boost their immunological baseline - if their immune system is compromised from the outset, then they are more susceptible to adverse outcomes from infection and disease.
Read on to find out how your child's immune system really works and effective ways to keep it healthy, especially during the ongoing pandemic.
Is it really possible to boost our immune system?
While there is no such thing as "boosting" your child’s immune system, there are definitely great habits you can help your child develop so that their immune system can properly respond properly to threats.
Most of these habits are common sense: eating healthy, getting enough sleep, getting vaccinated, attending check-ups, and washing hands, are just a few. You should also make sure you develop these habits as well. After all, healthy parents, healthy children!
There is no point, for example, in feeding your child a bunch of vitamins and supplements if they don't get a full night's sleep, just like there is no point in eating a salad if it’s served with a soda. The immune system is just that, a system, and it demands a set of healthy actions in order to be in the perfect condition to fight dangerous microbes.
Simplifying the complexities of the immune system
We all want our children to be healthy, but we must first know the "what" in order to understand the "how."
The immune system is a set of organs, cells, and substances that provide a natural defense for the body by recognizing the difference between the self and non-self and eliminating potentially harmful foreign antigens from the body. These components work together to defend you and your child from external threats.
Basically, your whole body is designed to defend itself from harmful agents, so the skin, the cornea, and the mucous membranes of the respiratory, digestive, and urogenital systems constitute the body's first line of defense.
When these barriers are breached, as happens when we are wounded, there are two possible types of immune responses; innate and acquired.
Innate immunity is a defense system we are born with that does not require prior exposure to a germ. It responds immediately and is composed of cells such as lymphocytes, leukocytes, and lymphoid cells.
Acquired immunity is the opposite. It requires an initial exposure to a germ in order to be fully effective. Through a memory mechanism, cells that contact a germ develop a memory which triggers an immune response upon the next contact.
From birth until old age, the immune system is in constant development and is mainly at the mercy of the environment, nutrition, and emotions. So, for your child's immune system to be fully effective, you must take action before birth.
Ways to keep your child's immune system strong
While the immune system can protect your child from illness, it is not fully capable of doing so on its own. It needs to be protected, nurtured, and helped to be effective.
1. Breastfeeding is the first step.
The first hours after birth are critical for the immune system, even though it has already begun to develop during pregnancy. The maturation of the immune system comes once the baby enters into the world and is exposed to common bacteria and germs.
A mother's body is wise and knows that a baby needs protection in order to grow healthily. To protect a baby, a mother produces colostrum for the baby to feed on. Colostrum contains more than 2,000 immune cells per mm3 and is low in fat and lactose while full of protein and immunoglobulins, thus meeting a baby’s health needs during its first days of infancy.
The bacterial ecosystem is also one of the first pillars of a strong immune system. One of the colostrum's main functions is to coat the baby's intestines with bacteria before they are exposed to breast milk.
Breastfeeding aids in the development of early acquired immunity.
Diseases caught by a woman leave “memories” in her immune system. Women then pass on these “memories” and good bacteria to their babies through colostrum and breast milk (acquired immunity) until their defense systems work independently.
If you are a mom-to-be and able to breastfeed (since that isn't always possible), give your child the gift of colostrum and feed it only breast milk for at least its first 6 months of life
2. Encourages a healthy diet
The relationship between healthy food and healthy living is well known. However, feeding children can sometimes become a headache for parents.
According to experts, children should eat "everything," including foods of all colors and kinds, and the earlier they are introduced, the more their immune system will benefit.
Several studies show that early contact with farm life, furry animals, unpasteurized milk, and older siblings can reduce susceptibility to allergic diseases such as asthma, atopic dermatitis, and chronic rhinitis. This is because of the acquired immunity mentioned above, where early exposure serves as ''training'' for the immune system, effectively preparing it to fight allergens and other infections.
Keep in mind that eating ''everything,'' doesn’t really mean everything. It means healthy foods only!
Remember that children are constantly developing and, to be healthy, they need high-quality foods. Try to limit their intake of processed foods as introducing these foods during early childhood can increase the risk of chronic diseases and metabolic imbalances in adulthood.
3. Don't skip vaccines.
As you know, the immune system develops using many tools, with the main one being memory. With each infectious experience your child encounters, their immune system is strengthened and trained. It then maintains a valuable memory of the experience to avoid future infections.
However, no one wants their child to get sick over and over again because every infection can be a surprise, so illness can be a double-edged sword when it comes to your child's health. But what if this protection can be achieved with minimal risk? That is where vaccines play a starring role.
Why vaccinate your child?
When the body is exposed to a virus or bacteria, the first symptoms are swelling and fever, which prevent the enemy (germ) from reproducing while the immune system produces specific weapons (antibodies). Although this is a natural protection mechanism par excellence, no one can predict how the body will respond, and sometimes that response can get out of control and make your child even sicker.
Vaccines attempt to simulate this natural response without actually making you sick, allowing only germ-specific particles to enter the body and interact with the immune system without posing a high risk.
Once the body responds by producing antibodies, the immune system remembers the germ it was exposed to and is able to react faster to subsequent infections from that germ.7
Remember that, in addition to traditional annual viruses, we now have SARS-CoV-2, and the combination of the two sounds pretty scary. Get your child vaccinated and comply with the immunization schedule recommended by your pediatrician.
4. Make regular handwashing a habit.
Childhood is a valuable and important time for developing good habits. During this time, children are able to constantly learn and absorb knowledge like a dry sponge in need of water, so it is a great time to encourage a healthy lifestyle.
Hand washing is the simplest, easiest, and quickest means of preventing infectious diseases, from diarrhea and vomiting to pneumonia and other respiratory diseases, and therefore should become a habit, especially during these uncertain times.
Help your child understand the value of regular hand washing in order to be safe and safeguard others. Make sure your child is aware of how germs spread and why it is so important to keep hands clean.
Never promote the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer spray, as there is a risk of poisoning. Instead, teach your child to wash their hands, and if you don't have soap and water nearby, use alcohol-based hand wipes.
5. Make sleep a priority and physical activity a lifestyle.
Many people think that all children can sleep like babies, but did you know that pediatric insomnia exists? Insomnia in children and adolescents is very common, affecting approximately one-third of young people.
We know that children would play until dawn if it were up to them. If parents do not limit bedtime refusals, their children are put at risk of developing behavioral insomnias of childhood (BIC), which can compromise learning, language, concentration, and ultimately, cognitive development.
Also, when a human is deprived of sleep, their immune system suffers because the body increases its production of chemicals, such as cytokines, which are risk factors for metabolic and inflammatory diseases.
The following are the recommended sleeping hours for each age group, according to the CDC.
At the same time, humans need daily physical activity in order to prevent future metabolic and autoimmune diseases, improve mood, and lead a healthier life.
Why is there a discrepancy between the two? Because of circadian rhythm. As long as the wake-sleep schedule is maintained throughout the day, the immune system can function properly.
Not to mention that physical activity helps your child stay fit, have fun, experience new emotions, and perhaps make new friends.
A word from Layvela
A child’s immune system is a diamond in the rough which is polished through illness, foods, and new experiences. Like anything in constant growth and development, it needs care and preventive measures to keep it healthy as it becomes stronger.
On the road to a more effective and faster immune system, simple habits such as getting enough sleep, exercising at least one hour a day, eating unprocessed foods as much as possible, and attending regular pediatric visits can make the difference between a child being healthy or sick.
As a parent, promote healthy habits, teach your children why taking care of themselves and helping others is important, and don't miss any vaccination appointments. Remember that your children depend on you and learn from you, so leading a healthy life as parents will help your child learn to be healthy as well!
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