Strengthening your child’s immune system

Bacteria, viruses and other pathogens are all around us—it’s impossible to avoid them. Fortunately, we have a way to protect ourselves against the threat of infection in the immune system.

When the human body is exposed to a threat from a pathogen, it fights back by analyzing that threat, designing antibodies, and then producing enough of them to disable the infection. It will also remember the design so that it can easily produce more antibodies later if a similar threat is encountered. We call this form of memory immunity.

A child’s immune system is much weaker than an adult’s. When a child is born, his or her immunity is like a blank sheet of paper. They’ve had no exposure to pathogens, so there’s no memory of how to fight them.

Usually, a child’s first exposure to bacteria is in the birth canal. This exposure contributes to the development of the child’s general health and the sensitivity of the immune system. Children delivered by C-section do not have the same exposure as those naturally-born, which could impair normal development.

All babies, however, have weak immunity during the first weeks of life. At this time, they are normally protected by the antibodies they receive from the mother’s milk. That is the importance of breastfeeding: babies cannot produce their own antibodies efficiently, so they need to get them from breast milk. This is called passive immunity. Unfortunately, there are no antibodies in formula milk because antibodies are created by a very delicate and complicated process in the human body. Babies who drink formula milk cannot receive this protection.

Immunization before six weeks of age for most antigens results in a weaker response and poorer immune persistence, mainly because of the immaturity of the immune system. Doctors need to wait until a baby’s immune system is strong enough to produce antibodies efficiently and fight disease. With the exception of hepatitis B, bacille Calmette-Guerin (BCG) and OPV—which are all given at birth—the recommended age to give most vaccines is at two months, or six weeks at the earliest.

When functioning properly, the immune system can identify a variety of threats including viruses, bacteria and parasites, and also distinguish them from the body’s own tissue. Children with immunodeficiency are more likely to get both recurrent and life-threatening infections, because their immune systems do not have the strength to fight. On the other hand, a child whose immune system hyper-reacts to infection will suffer from allergies, where the body’s immune system will fight uselessly against a non-threat, causing its own health complications.

A child with an autoimmune disease has an immune system that fights against the body’s own tissue by mistake. For example, diabetes type 1 is an autoimmune disease where the body produces antibodies that fight its own pancreatic tissue. Other examples are Hashimoto’s, thyroiditis, and SLE. It’s clear that the immune system is very important—it plays a central role in fighting disease. To a child, developing a mature immune system is crucial to good health throughout all stages of life.

Improving Child Immunity

The immune system is sorted into two types. The first is innate immunity. This is what the body has available to it from birth. Physical barriers like skin and mucus form part of this system, protecting against non-specific pathogens. The cough reflex, skin oil, and earwax all help to expel pathogens from the body. Some kinds of cells in the body produce chemicals for innate immunity, which are called interferon and interleukin.

The second is adaptive immunity. That means that when the body is exposed to a threat, it produces antibodies specific to that pathogen and then remembers those antibodies. This natural ability is what makes vaccination possible.

So how can we augment this ability and improve the natural immune system?

The first way is nutrition. This is very important, especially for infants of less than one year of age who rely on breast milk for their antibodies. We now recommend breastfeeding for as long as possible—at least until twelve months of age—and exclusively for at least the first six months. By seven or eight months, we need to provide babies with a variety of foods from different food groups. The protein, fat, carbohydrates and even minerals and vitamins in solid food are very important in improving the health of the immune system.

Unfortunately, many parents routinely give children multivitamins and mineral supplements without seeking medical advice. This is not a good practice because with some vitamins, an overdose is toxic. Oil soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, K and E can be very dangerous in overdose, causing seizures, nausea and vomiting. Vitamin D is an exception. Babies normally produce their own vitamin D in response to direct sunlight, but as the exposure to ultraviolet radiation in sunlight is risky, it’s better to supplement the diet with one drop containing 400 international units of vitamin D per day.

Another problem is that parents sometimes overfeed their children. While good nutrition boosts the immune system, overfeeding can lead to diabetes. Obesity and gastro-oesophageal reflux are also potential consequences of overfeeding in infancy.

The second way is sleeping quality. Good sleep is very important in nurturing the developing immune system, so a child should have an environment that is conducive to the quality of sleep. A newborn baby should sleep 18 hours per day, and a toddler 12–13 hours per day. A preschooler should sleep 10 hours per day. It’s important not to disturb a sleeping child which is another reason to avoid bottle feeding infant children; many parents wake their baby to feed, compromising their developing immune system.

Hygiene is the third way to boost immunity—it is most important to wash hands before preparing meals, or after going to the toilet. The immune system includes the skin and its oil, so washing the hands helps to reduce the spread of pathogens. It’s also vital that very young infants avoid contact with sick people, and are not exposed to smoking in the home, chemicals (choose organic food where possible) and pollutants in the air.

The last one is vaccination. Vaccines use our knowledge of the immune system to mimic infection, generate immunologic memory, and prepare the body for future infections. It’s very important to follow the vaccination schedule. The schedule is carefully planned to take into account the developing immune system. If we vaccinate too early, the baby has insufficient ability to produce antibodies. If too late, then the risk of a child being infected without the protection of immunity becomes greater.

By properly adhering to the standard vaccination system, you give your child the best chance of developing a robust and healthy immunity that will serve as a lifelong protection against infection.

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