How To Boost Your Kid’s Immune System

What can you do to protect your child from the endless array of germs they encounter? Well, in some ways, getting sick is simply part of a kid’s job description—and sometimes, it’s actually beneficial to help them build up their immune system.

As they grow, children boost their immune systems by battling an ongoing series of bacteria, viruses, and other organisms—which is why many pediatricians consider six to eight colds, bouts of flu, or ear infections per year normal.

That said, some healthy habits can help boost your kid’s immune system—whether that’s through healthy and mindful eating, sleeping and exercising habits, practicing good hygiene, staying educated about vaccines, or vitamins and supplements your child’s health care provider recommends. Small lifestyle changes for your whole family can actually help your child’s body more effectively fight off pathogens and help them recover faster.

Learn what you can do to help boost your kid’s immune system.

Serve More Fruits and Vegetables

When germs come knocking, reach for colorful fruits and veggies. Some smart choices include:

  • Carrots
  • Green beans
  • Oranges
  • Strawberries

This bright stuff contains carotenoids, which are immunity-boosting phytonutrients, says William Sears, MD, author of The Family Nutrition Book.

Phytonutrients may increase the body’s production of infection-fighting white blood cells and interferon, an antibody that coats cell surfaces, blocking out viruses. Research shows that a diet rich in phytonutrients can also protect against chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease in adulthood. Try to get your child to eat five servings of fruits and veggies per day.

Increase Sleep Time

Sleep deprivation can make adults more susceptible to illness by reducing natural killer cells, which are immune-system weapons that attack microbes and cancer cells. The same holds true for children, says Kathi Kemper, MD, a pediatrician in Columbus, Ohio.

Children in daycare are particularly at risk for sleep deprivation because all of the activity can make it difficult for them to nap. Be sure to double-check your daycare’s nap policy and if needed, put your child down for an earlier bedtime to ensure they’re getting plenty of rest.

So how much sleep do kids need? An infant may require up to 16 hours of crib time each day, toddlers should have 11 to 14 hours, and preschoolers need 10 to 13 hours. “If your child can’t or won’t take naps during the day, try to put them to bed earlier,” says Dr. Kemper.

Consider Nursing Your Baby

Human milk contains turbo-charged immunity-enhancing antibodies and white blood cells. Nursing helps guard against ear infections, allergies, diarrhea, pneumonia, meningitis, urinary tract infections, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Nursing can also help protect kids against insulin-dependent diabetes, Crohn’s disease, colitis, and certain forms of cancer later in life. Studies show that it may enhance your baby’s brain power. Colostrum, the thin yellow “pre-milk” that flows from the breasts during the first few days after birth, is especially rich in disease-fighting antibodies.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents exclusively nurse for the first six months of life. If this commitment isn’t realistic, you can aim to nurse for at least the first two to three months in order to supplement the immunity your baby received in utero. That said, there’s nothing wrong with formula-feeding your infant from the start—a well-fed baby is always the healthiest!

Exercise as a Family

Research shows that exercise increases the number of natural killer cells in adults—and regular activity can benefit kids in the same way.

To get your children into a lifelong fitness habit, be a good role model. “Exercise with them rather than just urge them to go outside and play,” says Renee Stucky, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Columbia, Missouri. Fun family activities include bike riding, hiking, in-line skating, basketball, and tennis.

Guard Against Germ Spread

Reducing germs doesn’t technically boost immunity, but it’s a great way to decrease stress on your child’s immune system. That can be especially helpful if your kid has any other conditions that require that immune system to work in other ways.

One of the simplest and most effective strategies is to make sure your kids wash their hands often with soap and water. You should pay particular attention to their hygiene before and after each meal and after playing outside, handling pets, blowing their nose, using the bathroom, and arriving home from daycare or school.

When you’re out, carry disposable wipes for quick cleanups. (Rubbing your hands with the wipes will still help reduce germs even if you can’t do a full hand wash.) To help kids get into the hand-washing habit at home, let them pick out their own colorful hand towels and soap in fun shapes and scents. Automatic hand soap dispensers are also a fun way to get them excited about hand-washing.

Another key germ-busting strategy: “If your child does get sick, throw out their toothbrush right away,” says Barbara Rich, DDS, a dentist in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. A child can’t catch the same cold or flu virus twice, but the virus can hop from toothbrush to toothbrush, infecting other family members.

If it’s a bacterial infection, such as strep throat, however, your child can reinfect themselves with the same germs that got them sick in the first place. In that case, tossing the toothbrush protects both your child and the rest of your family.

And last, but not least, there is always our old favorite germ reduction strategy: wearing a mask. If your child has the sniffles, encourage them to wear a mask to prevent spreading germs.

Banish Secondhand Smoke

If you or anyone in your household smokes, then it’s best to quit. Cigarette smoke contains more than 7,000 harmful chemicals, many of which can irritate or kill cells in the body, says Beverly Kingsley, PhD, an epidemiologist with the Office on Smoking and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. Kids are more susceptible than adults to the harmful effects of secondhand smoke because they breathe at a faster rate and their natural detoxification system is less developed.

If you’re smoking e-cigarettes, you should also be aware that vaping has negative health consequences for kids too. For instance, vaping releases potential carcinogens like nitrosamines, which may have long-term implications for kids’ health. Don’t be fooled by the shorter list of known health risks associated with vaping. Ultimately, vaping is simply too new for us to know the full breadth of its effects.

Secondhand smoke also increases a child’s risk of SIDS, bronchitis, ear infections, and asthma. It may also affect intelligence and neurological development. If you absolutely can’t quit smoking, you can reduce your child’s health risks considerably by smoking only outside the house, Dr. Kingsley says. And don’t forget that there are many resources that can help, so don’t be afraid to talk to a health care provider about getting help quitting.

Use Antibiotics Only When Necessary

It might feel more productive to do something when your child is sick, but urging your child’s health care provider to write a prescription for an antibiotic whenever they’re sick isn’t always wise. Antibiotics only treat illnesses caused by bacteria. “But the majority of childhood illnesses are caused by viruses,” says Howard Bauchner, MD, a professor of pediatrics and public health at the Boston University School of Medicine.

Studies show, however, that many pediatricians prescribe antibiotics somewhat reluctantly at the urging of parents who mistakenly think it can’t hurt. In fact, it can. Strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria have flourished as a result of the overuse of antibiotics, and a simple ear infection is more difficult to cure if it’s caused by stubborn bacteria that don’t respond to standard treatment.

Whenever your child’s health care provider wants to prescribe an antibiotic, make sure they aren’t prescribing it solely because they think you want it. “I strongly encourage parents to say, ‘Do you think it’s really necessary?'” says Dr. Bauchner.

Stay Up-to-Date on Vaccinations

Keeping up-to-date on your child’s recommended childhood vaccinations can help their immune system stay primed and ready to fight off dangerous pathogens like those that cause meningitis, polio, and chicken pox. Vaccinations work with your child’s immune system to teach it to recognize certain bacteria and viruses they might encounter, so they’ll be ready to fight them off.

If you have concerns about vaccinations, talk to your child’s health care provider. It’s very important to find one you can trust who can answer your questions. Your child’s provider can help you better understand how vaccinations work, what vaccinations are important for them, and point you to other helpful resources. And don’t forget to stay up-to-date on vaccinations yourself, because a healthy child definitely starts with a healthy parent!

Should You Boost Immunity With Supplements?

Vitamins and minerals play a big part in our body’s immune function. But should you grab a supplement to get your kid more vitamin A, zinc, or magnesium? Truth is, these aren’t a surefire way to prevent any illness.

Supplements can’t be marketed to treat, prevent, or cure any disease. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also doesn’t approve dietary supplements for safety and effectiveness. 

Experts say it’s typically best to focus on food consumption instead. “It is important for children to receive a variety of vitamins and minerals in their nutritional array,” says Rashmi Jain, MD, a concierge pediatrician in Irvine, California, and founder of BabiesMD. “I strongly recommend providing these components via the foods they eat as opposed to allowing our children to eat unhealthy or unwanted foods and then adding supplementation with vitamins or probiotics in an attempt to balance that out.”

In some cases, supplements may be OK, but it’s always important to speak with your child’s health care provider first.