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July 11, 2017

The immune system is the gatekeeper to your little one's health. Paulette Crowley talks to the experts about how you can strengthen their immunity.

How immunity works

The immune system is an army of cells in your body that fight foreign bodies, which can cause infection or other harm. When it has ‘conquered’ an infection, it produces antibodies that will protect you from getting sick with the same illness again.

The good news is that most people’s immune systems work well, unless they’ve been compromised with a serious disease such as AIDs, or have had treatment such as chemotherapy.

Keeping your little one’s immunity in check

Cleanliness and infection control is a big part of staying healthy, but any parent will tell you that keeping little kids clean is a challenge. However, there are some basic hygiene principles to help reduce the risk of infections. 

Mike Bedford, an early childhood education wellbeing specialist, says the key hygiene methods used in childcare settings can also be used at home.

Handwashing is the most effective defence against infections, especially gastro bugs like rotavirus. Hands should be washed after going to the toilet, before eating, and after using a tissue to wipe a runny nose. Also, encourage children to sneeze into their sleeves. 

Contrary to some advice, you don’t have to wash your hands for 20 seconds, he says. Some handwashing requirements are based on hospital regulation. “Don’t make it too hard for children. Build a culture of handwashing. Make it fun.”

Encourage kids to create and spread bubbles over their hands before rinsing. Drying hands is also critical, and a great way to encourage them is to make their paper towel or single-use face cloth into a tiny ball, to increase drying time.

Handwashing practice can begin with babies, says Mike. Wipe a baby’s hands after a nappy change and as soon as they’re old enough to stand, wash their hands at a basin after a nappy change.

Mike also advises to steer clear of antibacterial washes – “most infections are caused by viruses, not bacteria” – and to only use hand sanitiser after washing your hands with soap if someone’s sick.

“Another key factor in protecting kids’ health, especially during winter when viruses are rife, is to get them outside. “Children don’t dissolve in the rain – it’s been proven!” he laughs.  “They need fresh air. You don’t catch a cold from going outside but you will catch one by being inside cramped up with lots of children, especially if ventilation is poor.”

Extras for your baby’s immunity

Breastfeeding provides infants with an added level of immune protection that no commercial formula has been able to duplicate. 

Breast milk is great as it naturally contains several probiotics – including Bifidobacterium Breve, Lactobacillus Gasseri and Lactobacillus Salivarius – that are beneficial to the immune system.

While experts are still learning about how probiotics work, it’s thought that they can help your baby’s body defend itself against harmful bacteria, and help produce substances that can prevent infection, among other benefits.

As the vast majority (between 60 to 80 per cent) of the body’s immune cells are found in the gut, it makes sense that parents who wish to further boost their child’s immunity may look to supplements. Probiotics can be administered to babies either mixed with water, formula or for breastfed babies as a paste onto mum’s nipple. Ask your pharmacist for specific advice.

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