Child playing with wooden toy
 

One of the main concerns for parents in the new normal of COVID-19 is their child’s immunity. The immune system is a complex, interconnected system that evolves as we grow older. It works to protect the body from foreign invaders that cause sickness and infection1.

Childhood is a critical period for the immune system. As the period of receiving antibodies from the mother ends naturally and with their immune system still developing, kids become more susceptible to germs, viruses, and bacteria2.

As their immune systems are not yet fully developed, young children may have to take sick days from school due to cold sores, cough, and recurrent flus - which are just some common illnesses among young children3 that are part and parcel of growing up.

However, what you may not realise is that as they overcome these infections, children gradually prime their immunity. As parents, you can help this strengthening of your child’s immune system by adopting a number of immunity boosters which include ensuring a nutritious diet and a number of activities that are as much fun as they are beneficial. 

Start with a Proper Diet

The vitamins and minerals your kids get from their food play an important role in the proper functioning of their immune system. Start by identifying nutrient-dense foods that can boost their immunity.

Some of the nutrients that you should look out for include:

B vitamins: B1, B2, niacin, pantothenic acid, B6, biotin, B12 and folic acid - are essential for a healthy production of red blood cells. These vitamins can also help to support a number of metabolic functions. Foods which contain B vitamins include lean meats, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, and fortified bread and cereals.

Beta-Carotene: Beta-carotene is a powerful antioxidant that is known to be an immunity booster since it increases disease-fighting cells in the body4. Carrots, green leafy vegetables, capsicum, oranges, and other plant-based food are loaded with carotenoids. Try serving up a small salad with these ingredients for your growing child!

Other ingredients that can help support immunity resistances towards infections include MFGM (Milk Fat Globule Membrane), Yeast Beta-Glucan, Selenium, Iodine and fatty acids such as DHA5.

Probiotics: Probiotics are live bacteria that help in digestive functions. Eighty percent of our immune system which consists of probiotics can be found in the gut6. Be sure to have your kids load up on probiotic-rich food such as yoghurt. Keeping a healthy balance of good bacteria in the gut helps prevent diseases and maintains immunity at an optimum level.

Prebiotics: Prebiotics are high-fibre foods that help nourish probiotics or the good bacteria. Prebiotics are able to promote a balance of live microorganisms in the body - making it truly beneficial for your child’s gut health19. To be more specific, prebiotics are ingredients that cannot be digested by the human body but trigger positive growth and activity of bacteria20. They can be found in high-fibre foods such as whole grains and some leafy greens19.

Vitamin A: An intake of this nutrient is essential for maintaining good health and vision, as well as enhancing immune function. It can be found in food carrots, dairy products, eggs and oily fish such as salmon and sardines.  

Vitamin C: Vitamin C is considered an immunity booster because it is involved in many parts of the immune system function21. Some of these functions include encouraging the production of white blood cells to protect the body against infections, and acting as an antioxidant for the skin’s barriers21. This nutrient is commonly found in fruits and vegetables such as oranges, strawberries, broccoli, and spinach. 

Vitamin E: Several studies reveal that Vitamin E can improve the body’s immune system response during aging and reduce the oxidative damage that may contribute to cancer and asthma22. Foods that contain lots of Vitamin E are vegetable oils, nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables.

Zinc: Zinc is a crucial mineral in the function of the immune system. It can be found in foods such as dairy, shellfish, beans, nuts, bread, and cereals. Although oysters may contain high amounts of zinc, they are not advisable for women to consume due to potentially high mercury content23.

Iron: An essential component of haemoglobin (the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout your body and to your baby), iron is regarded as an essential part of your child’s immunity development24. Sufficient intake of iron can also ensure proper cognitive development in children24. Iron exists in two forms - heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is better absorbed by the body, and can be found in foods such as red meats and fish. The absorption of non-heme iron, on the other hand, can be enhanced by consuming foods that contain Vitamin C (e.g. fruits like oranges) together with meals, and limiting your caffeine intake (e.g. coffee & tea) to between meals and not together with meals if necessary. Non-heme iron can be found in foods such as eggs, dark green leafy vegetables, lentils and soybeans.

Go for a Bike Ride

Encourage your kids to be outside as much as possible - but always remember to practice caution in the new normal of COVID-19. Do this not just for the benefits of exercise and fresh air but also for them to soak in Vitamin D from the sun—a natural immunity booster12. Low levels of Vitamin D are linked to autoimmune conditions7.

A great way of spending time outdoors is by going on a bike ride. It is a fun activity for the family to do together. If your child doesn’t already know how to ride a bike, this is the right motivation to get them started! In Singapore, you can have your pick of scenic routes such as Pulau Ubin, which has kid-friendly routes. Other kid-friendly biking paths include Toa Payoh Town Park and Zhenghua Nature Park10.

Remember that while you can attempt longer trails with older kids, you may want to take each segment separately for younger children10.

Quality Time

Despite the notion that kids live carefree lives, children may feel stressed11. Preschool age kids may experience anxiety when separated from their parents. Older children may feel the pressure to do well in school or fit in with their peers11. Other children may be going through tough times, such as experiencing family problems13. A constant level of high stress can take a toll on a child’s immunity13.

Like adults, young children also have the same response to stress: increase in cortisol and adrenaline levels18. Prolonged elevation of stress hormones can affect immunity response. One study showed that early exposure to chronic stressors can result in immune dysregulation - which is a disorder that can trigger uncontrolled immune responses17.

To help children cope with stress, it's important to make time with your kids. Talk with your kids, or just to be in the same place as them. Create a space where it’s easier  for them to talk about their problems11. This is important not just to boost immunity, but to also take care of the child’s heart and mind.

Dance, Dance, Dance

Exercise is an effective immunity booster. Regular moderate exercise increases white blood cell activity, thus, improves immunity function8. Some studies have shown that children with serious diseases see marked improvement in their immune function with exercise14.

Moreover, engaging in physical activities help flush out bacteria to reduce chances of getting a cold or flu. It also releases endorphins (hormones that reduce pain and create pleasure) which is helpful in managing stress. This will help improve kids' immunity level14.

Opting for dance as a form of exercise helps your child get creative and moving at the same time. Blast your favorites tunes and dance the day away. Toddlers can also start joining mommy-and-me dance classes.

Who knows, maybe you’ll learn a few dance moves from your little one!

Practice Meditation

Mindfulness practices are an immunity booster for children15. And while it may take a while to learn, once your kid gets the hang of it, meditation can bring wonders to his or her overall well-being.

What we think and feel can affect our immune system via the chemical messages from the brain9. Therefore, negative thinking as well as being in a lot of stress can impair immunity function.

Pediatricians recommend preschool age children trying meditation for just a few minutes a day. Elementary aged children can try for 3 to 10 minutes twice a day15.

Young children are vulnerable to certain infections such as colds and flu. Employing these activities can help boost and improve their immunity so they can go along and enjoy life’s big and small moments. Beyond boosting their immunity, opening your child’s eyes to the wonders of good food, exercise, mindfulness, and family quality time will also enrich their lives in the long-term.

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Expert Resource:
Dr. Raymond Choy Wai Mun
(MCR 18097A)
MBChB (UK), Aviation Medicine (Singapore)


References:

  1. Immune System (n.d.). Retrieved September 25, 2020 from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/21196-immune-system
  2. Evolution of the immune system in humans from infancy to old age (2015). Retrieved September 25, 2020 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4707740/
  3. A Quick Guide To Common Childhood Diseases (2009). Retrieved September 25, 2020 from http://www.bccdc.ca/resource-gallery/Documents/Guidelines%20and%20Forms/Guidelines%20and%20Manuals/Epid/Other/Epid_GF_childhood_quickguide_may_09.pdf
  4. Foods To Boost the Immune System (2020). Retrieved September 25, 2020 from https://www.pcrm.org/news/blog/foods-boost-immune-system
  5. 10 Things Parents Should Know About Strong Immunities & Mental Development in Children (2020). Retrieved September 25, 2020 from https://www.purelyb.com/be-well/parenting/10-things-parents-should-know-about-strong-immunities-mental-development-in-children
  6. Ways to Boost Your Immune System (2020). Retrieved September 25, 2020 from https://www.aarp.org/health/healthy-living/info-2020/boosting-immune-response.html
  7. The Implication of Vitamin D and Autoimmunity: a Comprehensive Review (2018). Retrieved September 25, 2020 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6047889/#:~:text=Vitamin%20D%20deficiency%20(low%20serum,and%20protection%20from%20autoimmune%20diseases.
  8. Exercise and immunity (n.d.). Retrieved September 25, 2020 from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007165.htm#:~:text=Physical%20activity%20may%20help%20flush,system%20cells%20that%20fight%20disease.
  9. Train Your Brain to Boost Your Immune System (2016). Retrieved September 25, 2020 from https://www.mindful.org/train-brain-boost-immune-system/
  10. Best Bike Trails for Kids in Singapore: Central, North-west, West, and South-west (May 2017).  Retrieved October 9, 2020 from https://singaporemotherhood.com/articles/2017/05/best-bike-trails-west-kids-singapore/
  11. Childhood Stress (February 2015). Retrieved October 9, 2020 from https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/stress.html
  12. Vitamin D in Children’s Health (February 2014). Retrieved October 9, 2020 from   https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4928729/
  13. Psychological Stress in Children May Alter the Immune Response (March 2014). Retrieved October 9, 2020 from  https://www.jimmunol.org/content/192/5/2071
  14. Can exercise boost immune function in children? (April 2020). Retrieved October 9, 2020 from https://www.texaschildrens.org/blog/can-exercise-boost-immune-function-children
  15. Just Breathe: The Importance of Meditation Breaks for Kids (April 2017). Retrieved October 9, 2020 from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/emotional-wellness/Pages/Just-Breathe-The-Importance-of-Meditation-Breaks-for-Kids.aspx
  16. Fitness and Your 2- to 3-Year-Old (May 2019). Retrieved October 9, 2020 from https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/fitness-2-3.html
  17. Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function (Oct 2016). Retrieved October 14, 2020 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4465119/
  18. Toxic Stress: How the Body’s Response Can Harm a Child’s Development (Jun 2017). Retrieved October 14, 2020 from https://www.nationwidechildrens.org/family-resources-education/700childrens/2017/07/toxic-stress-how-the-bodys-response-can-harm-a-childs-development
  19. What are probiotics and prebiotics? (2020) Retrieved August 24, 2020 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/expert-answers/probiotics/faq-20058065
  20. Prebiotics and Probiotics for Babies (n.d.) Retrieved August 24, 2020 from https://www.enfamil.com/articles/prebiotics-and-probiotics-for-babies
  21. 7 Impressive Ways Vitamin C Benefits Your Body. Retrieved November 5, 2020 from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/vitamin-c-benefits
  22. Vitamin E, Vitamin C, and Immune Response: Recent Advances. Retrieved November November 5, 2020 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK230984/#:~:text=Most%20studies%20show%20that%20vitamin,that%20may%20occur%20during%20exercise
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  24. Top 5 Iron Rich Foods to Boost Your Child’s Immunity. Retrieved November 5, 2020 from https://www.netmeds.com/health-library/post/top-5-iron-rich-foods-to-boost-your-child-s-immunity#:~:text=All%20dry%20fruits%20including%20raisins,and%20energized%20through%20the%20day.