When the weather cools down, instinct tells you to go into hibernation mode, rugging your tot up and herding him indoors. But to give your child the best chance of staying well this winter, blobbing about
on the couch is best avoided.
Keeping coughs, colds and flus at bay can be as easy as sticking to a sensible, healthy lifestyle, the experts say. However, those same experts say parents can’t expect to have well kids all of the time. Because of their immature immune systems, littlies will – and need to, for the sake of immune development – get sick occasionally.
And because viruses are believed to live longer in cooler conditions and people like to stay indoors together, winter is when everyone seems to get sick more often. Most at risk, says PP GP Dr Ginni Mansberg, are kids who have older siblings, those who already have compromised health and children who attend daycare. (“Little kids aren’t very aware of personal space! They love each other and hug and kiss each other and sit right next to each other, which is beautiful, but great for spreading germs,” she says.)
So how can you minimise your child’s risk of catching everything going this winter?
Plate it up!
Good nutrition is vital to keep a child’s immune system strong and healthy, says Aloysa Hourigan, senior nutritionist with Nutrition Australia’s Queensland division. “Meat and vegies help keep kids healthy in two ways,” she explains. “Iron-rich foods like meat are important because if children are a bit anaemic, then their immune system becomes more susceptible. And vitamin C in vegetables helps the body absorb the iron that isn’t found in meat. Vitamin C is also involved in helping the immune system in its own way.”
Small people are notoriously difficult to convince of the merits of vegetables, though, so if that’s proving too much of a challenge, try coaxing your tot with fruit instead, Aloysa says. “Even a fruit platter at breakfast can be a way to boost his immune system. Citrus is around in winter, and it’s a prime source of vitamin C.”
In order to ensure he gets all vital vitamins and nutrients, try to give your child as broad a range of coloured fruit and vegetables as possible, Sydney naturopath Amanda Haberecht advises, “and avoid too much sugar and too many refined foods, because they can depress the immune system.”
Garlic, with its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, is a good to include in his diet, as are foods with probiotics such as yoghurts, Amanda says. “The gut is the governor of the immune system, so will be much healthier if the probiotics are in balance.”
When it comes to babies, Amanda says if you’re breastfeeding, don’t think about weaning completely until winter is over. “Breastfeeding as you go into winter means your child, even if he is breastfed just once a day, is getting those really important protective antibodies from you,” she says.
Add a bit extra
“If you want your child to take vitamins, give him some broccoli, some tomato, some fish...” Dr Mansberg says. However, Aloysa says that if you can’t coerce your offspring to eat even fruit, supplements are worth a shot. “You don’t want to use supplements all the time, but moderate doses for a short time may be a good idea,” she says. “But I would always try food as a source of vitamins first.”
Sleep’s a saviour
Adequate sleep is important for a robust immune system, Aloysa says. “Encourage your child to get a good night’s sleep – if he’s not getting enough sleep, his immune system won’t be as strong.”
Move it, move it
Sitting indoors is the worst thing you can do for the immune system, Amanda says. “Going into winter, the body’s vitamin D levels drop, and vitamin D is a major moderator of the immune system.” Since the body makes this vitamin using sunlight, “it’s important that children get a lot of sunshine in winter,” she says.
Aloysa adds that physical activity also boosts the immune system. “Going for a walk or heading to the park can be fun in winter,” she says. “Keeping active and getting outdoors for fresh air is important in staying well.”
Dr Mansberg says that good hygiene goes a long way towards limiting the spread of germs. “If you can get your child into good habits of flushing the toilet, washing his hands well with soap and water and making sure they are dry, this is a huge help in stopping the transmission of germs.”
Easy does it
If your child does get sick, allow him adequate time to rest and recover. “When your kid gets an infection, his immune system will be low, so it’s good to keep him home an extra day if you can, to allow him to build up his immunity,” Dr Mansberg says. “If your child has had a few things back to back, try to give him a week off daycare so that he can really recover.”
Consideration is key
Do the right thing when it comes to keeping your sick child home from daycare, Dr Mansberg says. “Sick kids spread germs and, as a community, we all pay the price,” she says. “It can be difficult to take time off if you have got a lot on at work, but if you do the right thing, I like to think what goes around comes around, and other parents will do the same.”
Look on the bright side…
If your little one gets sick (and he almost certainly will at one time or another during the cooler months), try to stay positive: there’s not a lot you can do once he is down. Instead, focuson what a wonderful opportunity this is for his immune system to become stronger. “When they are sick, kids are building up a beautiful library of immune warriors,” Dr Mansberg says. While a few coughs and colds are par for the course, if your child seems to be getting sick particularly frequently or is unwell for long periods of time, it’s a good idea to chat to your doctor.