Keeping your children's immune systems strong in winter

 Photo: iStock


While little immune systems are growing it's considered normal for children to get a number of colds and infections per year - this actually helps build stronger immune systems for later in life. But a few simple tricks can help minimise the chance of infection, and to lessen the severity and longevity of illness if the sniffles do make it into your home.

Adequate sleep

Sleep is known to increase our resistance to illness at a cellular level, so ensuring everyone gets adequate time between the sheets is a great way to keep immunity on track.

While children's sleep requirements differ slightly from child to child, the National Sleep Foundation gives the following as a general guide.  

Age Recommended amount of sleep 
  Newborns   Up to 18 hours per day
  Infants   9-12 hours plus a few naps per day
  Toddlers  11-14 hours per day naps included
  Preschoolers   11-13 hours per day
  School age  9-11 hours per night

Fresh fruit and vegetables

Fresh fruit and vegies are great for your children (and you!) for  many reasons, and during the cold and flu season they provide large amounts of necessary nutrients to ensure everyone stays strong fit and strong.

"Fruits and vegies are powerhouses of immune boosting antioxidants, vitamins and minerals," says Emily Burgess, spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia. "Try to pack those winter warming casseroles, stews and soups full of vegies, and get in the habit of stewing fruits to add to porridge - it's delicious on these chilly mornings."

Vitamin C is known to be a major factor in healthy immunity, so eating vibrant and delicious foods such as kiwifruit, strawberries, capsicum, broccoli and kale will all give your immune system a fighting chance. Vitamin C is also known to be a natural antihistamine, so if your ailment is hay fever, rather than a cold, it can help you there too. The bioflavonoids present in citrus fruit can have powerful anti-allergy effects.

Increase probiotics

"Healthy bacteria keep your gut and intestinal tract free of disease-causing germs," says Emily. "A huge portion of your immune system is located in your digestive system, so keeping your gut health in good working order can be essential to staying well."

Yoghurt is an excellent source of probiotics, so keep an eye out for one boasting high amounts of live cultures.

Keeping up your zinc

Zinc is an essential mineral for supporting optimal immune functions and for fighting off the common cold. Zinc is found in lean red meat, fish and poultry, as well as wholegrain cereals, legumes, dairy foods and nuts.

"Boost your intake of zinc in the winter months," Emily advises. "Zinc is important for the development of white blood cells, the cells that recognise and destroy invading bacteria, viruses and assorted other bad guys."

Washing hands

Whether we're talking about colds and flus or various other childhood afflictions, handwashing is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of infection.

"Keeping hands clean is one of the most important steps we can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others," says general practitioner Nealie Barker. "Many diseases and conditions are spread by not washing hands with soap and clean, running water. Handwashing with soap removes germs from hands."  

Using soap and water, and taking your time to thoroughly wash and dry your hands before and after food handling and touching public areas, can be very beneficial.

If you're not sure a place you're visiting will have handwashing facilities, such as a park, it can be a good idea to take hand sanitiser with you.

Cleaning surfaces

Colds and flu are airborne viruses that are transmitted through droplets released when coughing or sneezing. Covering your mouth with your hand may prevent droplets from flying, however surfaces touched by those hands can create an issue.

"Germs from unwashed hands can be transferred to other objects, like handrails, table tops, or toys, and then transferred to another person's hands, " says Dr Barker. "People frequently touch their eyes, nose, and mouth without even realising it, and germs can get into the body through the eyes, nose and mouth and make us sick."

Ensure any surfaces that are regularly used are kept clean with a disinfectant spray, and try to avoid touching your face with your hands.

Ensuring your child is vaccinated

While we can't vaccinate against the common cold, having a compromised immunity makes it easy for the other big bugs to strike. Ensuring you're up to date on vaccinations can ensure a simple cold remains just that.

"Pertussis (whooping cough), haemophilus influenzae type b and pneumococcal are all bugs that are causes of respiratory infection, as well as opportunistic bugs that can cause serious complications in a child who may already be unwell with something simple," says Dr Barker.

"To have immunity from those bugs almost eliminates the chance of your child having an illness caused by one, or of them catching one of these bugs while they're already sick with a hard-working immune system."