A common question that many mothers ask their child’s doctor is, “Doctor, my child seems to be weak, and falls sick too often. Can you give me some medicines, or is there a way by which I can increase his/her immunity?”
Though immune levels are largely genetically determined, there are many conditions where immunity can drop or rise. But what is more important is to know how to improve your child’s immunity. Here are some methods for doing this, depending on the age of the child.
Newborn children are born with a lot of passive immunity from their mothers, but generally have poorer immunity levels than older children. One of the best methods to enhance their immunity is to exclusively feed them breast milk. Breast feeding prevents unwanted germs and organisms from entering the child’s gut, and apart from nutrition, also contains plenty of immune factors like antibodies, lymphocytes, and other immune chemicals. Dedicatedly breast feeding your child for at least six months will insure that his/her immune levels remain high, till s/he starts producing his/her own immune cells and antibodies. After six months, introducing balanced weaning foods, which include cereals, milk, eggs, fruits and vegetables, will boost the immune function.
One of the chief methods for increasing immunity is vaccinations. Vaccines, contain germs in a dead form or an inactivated form, stimulate the child’s immune system, and produce antibodies against that particular disease. From birth to one year, the child should receive vaccines against diseases like tuberculosis, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, hepatitis B, haemophilus influenza, pneumococcal disease, and measles. Once these vaccines are correctly administered, the child is fully immune against them. A popular belief is that intake of vitamins and tonics can boost the immune function.
In the 1-3 years age group, children tend to fall sick very often, as this is the period when the passive immunity acquired from the mother falls, and the child has to develop his/her own immunity. In this window period between the passive and active immunity, a lot of infections are common. Though nothing can be given to directly amplify the immunity, keeping the environment clean and smoke free, giving a balanced diet made up of fruits, vegetables, cereals, milk, eggs, meat and dry fruits will help to boost immune levels. Also, in the 1-3 years group, certain important vaccines against diseases like chicken pox, mumps, German measles, and the polio triple boosters help to prevent their occurrence.
From the age group of 3-10 years, the child has developed quite a bit of immunity on his/her own, and the rate of infections starts to go down, although individual differences will be there. While some children hardly visit the doctor, others have to be seen and treated almost once or twice a month.
If children in this age group are not eating a balanced diet, it might help to supplement their food with multi-vitamins, minerals and protein supplements, so as to cover the gap that arises out of poor eating. Exercise and play also boost immunity, apart from relieving stress, which itself is an important cause of the immunity going down. Also, a few vaccines in this age group, like typhoid, hepatitis A and the boosters assure protection against diseases.
Stress is a much underrated cause of a depressed immunity. Doctors often see older children being brought to their clinic with coughs, colds and fever. On deeper enquiry, it is revealed that the child is under severe stress, either because of some fear, a broken family, a single parent set-up, sibling rivalry, or some form of child abuse. Stress, by activating the fight or flight mechanisms in the body, leads to a high level of cortisol [a steroid hormone] in the blood, leading to immune depression. Similarly, sleep deprivation or sleep lag also results in depressed immunity. Such a child and his/her parents will need counselling and need to adopt stress reduction measures, in order to stimulate the immunity of the child.
In a nutshell
Immunity like many of our other traits – skin complexion, height, and hair colour – is predominantly determined by genetics. It can go up or down, depending on various factors, like disease, stress, medications, nutrition and exercise. Parents should make the child’s environment as clean and stress-free as possible, and should also ensure balanced nutrition, timely vaccinations, good sleep hygiene and adequate play and exercise, in order to keep the child’s immunity efficient. Apart from causing infections, poor immunity has also been linked to a higher incidence of cancers and auto-immune disorders, in later life. But parents of children will repeated infections need not despair – recent research shows that repeated childhood infections itself serve to stimulate, activate and prime the immune system, leading to a lower incidence of cancers and other serious infections in adulthood.
Breast milk and Newborn immunity
A newborn doesn’t have a mature immune system and is unable to set up a immune response to infections. Breast milk is the child’s first and chief source of immunity.
- Breast milk contains immunoglobulins [antibodies] that fight against bacterial and viral infections and even help your child respond better to some vaccines.
- It is fortified with vitamins and minerals. It contains all the vitamins required by your baby along with zinc, a mineral imperative for the proper functioning of the immune system.
- It contains disease-fighting lactoferrin which has an antibiotic effect on some bacteria like E. coli
- It consists of protective lysozymes. These are enzymes which damage bacterial cell walls and clear the intestinal tract of any infection.
- Breast milk supports the growth of lactobacillus, a healthy bacterium which creates an acidic environment that arrests the growth of unhealthy bacteria in the gut.
- The process of breast feeding provides the child a sense of security besides your love which works well on the psyche and leads to a stronger immunity.
- Surveys validate that breast milk protects your child against diseases like asthma, UTI, bacterial meningitis, ear infections, diarrhoea and respiratory disorders, the last two being the biggest cause of infant deaths in the first one month of life.
- Breastfeeding has been shown to reduce the likelihood of ear infections, and to prevent recurrent ear infections.
- Infants who are breast-fed longer have fewer dental cavities throughout their lives.
Thus, breast milk is vital for your newborn who should be breastfed within the first hour of birth to derive maximum benefit from it.
— Priti Salian