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What with one very dominating virus taking over our lives these last few years, we could be forgiven for forgetting that there are other illnesses around. Colds and flu are a fact of life, but in the past few months, it feels like there has been a sharp increase in cases in Singapore. While everyone needs safeguarding against them, it’s our responsibility as parents to protect our children from such nasties.

“Our immune system at birth is a simple immune system with no exposure,” explains Dr Shivani Paliwal of Singapore’s International Medical Clinic (imc-healthcare.com). “Then, slowly, children boost and develop their immune systems by battling a slow ongoing series of germs, viruses, and other organisms so much so that paediatricians consider six to eight colds, bouts of flu, or ear infections per year normal.”

Kick your kid’s immune system into gear with Dr Shivani’s top tips.

Serve more fruit & veggies

When germs come knocking, reach for colourful fruits and veggies, such as carrots, green beans, oranges, and strawberries. The bright stuff contains carotenoids, which are immunity-boosting phytonutrients which may increase the body’s infection-fighting white blood cells, and interferon, an antibody that coats cell surfaces, blocking out viruses. Studies show that a diet rich in phytonutrients can protect against chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease in adulthood. Try to get your little one to eat five servings of fruits and veggies daily.

Increase sleep

Sleep deprivation can make children more susceptible to illness by reducing natural killer cells, immune-system weapons that attack microbes and cancer cells. But how much kip do kids need? An infant may require up to 16 hours of crib time each day, toddlers should have 11 to 14 hours, and pre-schoolers 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 Shivani.

Six to eight colds, bouts of flu or ear infections per year are normal

Breastfeed your baby if you can

Breast milk contains turbo-charged immunity-enhancing antibodies and white blood cells. Studies show that it may also enhance your baby’s brain power and help to protect them against insulin-dependent diabetes, Crohn’s disease, colitis, and certain forms of cancer later in life. 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.

Exercise as a family

Research shows that exercise increases the number of natural killer cells that help fight infections. Be a good role model and get your children into a lifelong fitness habit. “Exercise with them rather than just urge them to go outside and play,” says Dr Shivani. Cool family activities include bike riding, hiking, in-line skating and tennis.

Swerve the antibiotics

It might feel productive to do something when your child is sick, but reaching for antibiotics whenever your child has a cold, flu, or sore throat probably won’t help. This is because antibiotics treat only illnesses caused by bacteria, but viruses cause most childhood illnesses. Therefore, giving them when unnecessary can cause strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria to flourish. As a result, a simple ear infection is more difficult to cure if it’s caused by bacteria that doesn’t respond to standard treatment.

Keep on vaxxing

Keeping your child’s recommended childhood vaccinations up-to-date can help their immune system stay primed and ready to fight off dangerous pathogens like meningitis, polio, and chicken pox. Vaccinations work with your child’s immune system to teach it to recognise 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 doctor. They can offer you a better understanding of how vaccinations work, which ones are essential for your child, and point you to resources that can help. And don’t forget to stay up-to-date on your own vaccinations too – afterall, a healthy child starts with a healthy parent.

Guard against spread

Reducing germs doesn’t technically boost immunity, but it does decrease stress on your child’s immune system. One of the simplest and most effective strategies is ensuring your kids wash their hands often with soap. Pay 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 day care. When you’re out, carry disposable wipes for quick clean ups. Lastly, get children into the hand washing habit at home by allowing them to pick out colourful soap in fun shapes and scents.

Dr Shivani Paliwal
MBBS (Aligarh Muslim U, India), Board Cert (Paediatrics, United States)