When children first start childcare, the frustrating truth it is that they are going to get sick. Frequently. Their immune system is suddenly exposed to an increased number and variety of microbes that can provoke an immune response and result in illness.

It can be a big juggle for us as parents having our routine disrupted by sick kids and loss of childcare, so to minimise the disruption to your life, here are some ways you can help to increase your kids’ immune resilience and get them back to daycare asap. 

What’s normal?

It’s normal for children under the age of 5 to have between 4-6 upper respiratory tract infections (i.e. common colds) each year. This number is usually higher for children in a daycare setting or for those with older school aged siblings.

Reframing frequent illness can be useful for some parents. By shifting our perceptions and expectations, we can reduce frustration with endless interruption to our weekly schedule. Being prepared for illness is also helpful – more on this below. 

Indicators of strong immunity

Contrary to popular belief, frequent illness in the context of daycare is not necessarily a sign of poor immune function in kids. Rather, it’s a sign that their immune system is building up resilience and tolerance by responding to and learning about the environment they are living in.

Illness is going to happen, so rather than focusing on the total number of infections your child has, some more reliable things to look at when assessing immune resilience include:

  • the nature and pattern of infections
  • severity of symptoms
  • how quickly they resolve the infection (i.e. recovery time)
  • whether there are any complications with the infections (i.e. hospital admissions, secondary infections)

Supporting immunity

The immune system is working hard in infancy and early childhood to mature and build strength, and there are lots of ways we can support our little ones doing this very important work so that your family routine returns to normal as soon as possible after these interruptions from illness.

Things to do:

Provide a whole foods diet rich in real, unprocessed foods – this will provide your kids immune cells with all the essential nutrients to function at their best (parents of picky eaters, I see you! I know this is hard). More on immunity & nutrition below.

Relaxation – allowing pockets of quiet time with relaxing activities helps to manage stress.

Movement & exercise: regular movement helps boost immune strength via it’s role as being a positive stressor for the body.

Sleep & rest: support your child to get the sleep they need, provide opportunities for rest regularly.

Sunshine: get outdoors as often as possible to provide sunshine for vitamin D production, a key immune supporting nutrient. Sun exposure needs to be unprotected for vitamin D production to occur, so aim for a brief period in low-moderate UV of unprotected exposure before you apply protection – 10-15 minutes three times a week if thighs and tummy are out (hello nudies!) or 5-10 minutes daily with hands, arms, and face out. Then slip, slop, slap.

Playing in the dirt: helps with exposure to a variety of microbes for immune tolerance and builds gut health, which is integral for immune health (see more below).

Teach your child good hygiene practices: where developmentally appropriate, teach your child about proper hand washing, sneezing and coughing etiquette, and encourage them to drink from only their personal water bottle.

Things to avoid:

High sugar foodshigh blood sugar levels can suppress immune function, making our kids more susceptible to infections and increasing their recovery time.

The foods that are most likely to spike blood sugar are soft drinks, fruit juice, lollies, processed sweet snack foods (cookies, snack bars, biscuits, cakes, etc.). Even some ‘healthy’ foods can fall into this category – look out for large servings of dried fruit (when eaten on their own) or fruit-only smoothies.

Highly processed diet – generally speaking, processed foods are lower in the essential nutrients needed to support immune function and crowd out the opportunity for our kids to eat the nourishing foods they need, like meats, eggs, and fruit.

High stress levels – chronically high stress will levels suppress immune function, leaving our kids more susceptible to infections.

Poor sleep – can negatively influence immune function. If you have a wakeful baby or toddler, don’t fret – just continue to provide opportunities for sleep and support them as they need. Low sleep need children are different from children whose sleep needs are not being met.

Eating for immunity

Many of the vitamins and minerals we get from our food are needed in some way to support immune system function, which is why a mostly whole foods diet is so important. Some nutrients, in particular, are integral for immune cell function. These include:

  • Zinc
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin D
  • Iron
  • Selenium
  • Omega-3 essential fatty acids

Immune supporting foods

Incorporating plenty of the following nutrient dense foods into your daily meals will help to meet your child’s nutritional needs, supporting their overall immune function:

Meat of all kinds: rich iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and selenium

Oily fish (i.e. salmon, tuna, sardines, trout, mackerel): these are the only food source of the omega-3 essential fatty acids, as well as providing selenium, zinc, and vitamin

Seafood: provides plenty of zinc, selenium, and B12

Berries, oranges & kiwi fruit: excellent sources of vitamin C

Eggs: plenty of vitamin A, selenium, B12, iron, zinc, and selenium; some eggs contain vitamin D, depending on the farming methods

Liver (see more below): best food source of iron and vitamin A, with B12 and vitamin C

Full fat dairy (if well tolerated by your child): rich in B12 and vitamin A

Medicinal mushrooms: for those kids with a more adventurous palate, mushroom varieties like shiitake, maitake, and reishi all have immune enhancing properties

Foods that support gut health: more on this in the next section

A note on liver:

Many people find the suggestion of consuming liver unappealing or even quite confronting. Culturally, we have moved away from consuming the whole animal, including organ meats – something that would have been commonplace in the past and still is in some cultures around the world. However, if there ever was a ‘superfood’, liver might be the top candidate – it is the best food source of a whole range of nutrients, including many that are important for immune function like B12, iron, zinc, and vitamin C.

For kids who are unfamiliar with eating liver, start with chicken liver, as it is the mildest tasting option. Some kids will try pate, served with crackers and butter. For other kids, liver will need to be hidden in other foods. Liver can be added to recipes using ground meat, for example, stirred into Bolognese sauce, Shepherd’s pie, or meatballs (ask your butcher to mince it for you or freeze the livers and then grate them into the meals). This masks the taste, while dramatically boosting the nutrition of the meal. Start with 30g grated into a family size meal and build up your taste buds from there, aiming for around 100g.

Digestive health & immunity

There is a strong relationship between the immune system and the digestive system. A large portion of immune function occurs in the gut (estimates suggest up to 70%), where immune cells defend and protect the body from the largest potential entry point for foreign invaders.

The gut is also home to the microbiome – an ecosystem of beneficial bacteria that work in synergy with the body. The microbiome and the immune system are in constant communication, working in alliance to influence immune activity throughout the whole body.

Consequently, when gut health is out of balance in children, immune dysregulation and recurrent infections are common.

 

Supporting digestive health

Digestive health is a big topic that really requires it’s own post, but these are some starting points for supporting good digestive health in our kids:

Include prebiotic fibre-rich foods – prebiotic fibre is a type of fibre that feeds the beneficial bacteria of the microbiome. It is found in various plant foods, some of the best sources being onion, garlic, leeks, asparagus, nuts & seeds, legumes (lentils, beans, chickpeas), brassica family vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, kale)

Include probiotic foods that contain strains of live bacteria, which support microbiome health. These include natural or greek or coconut yoghurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, and other naturally fermented vegetables like kim chi or natural pickles.

Play in the dirt – as mentioned above, allowing kids time to play in the dirt helps their microbiome to develop and their immune system to mature. 

Avoid unnecessary use of antibioticswhich can damage the microbiome.

Probiotic supplements can help – but I always recommend personalised advice because the quality and strain of bacteria really matter. 

Being prepared for illness

Reduce the frustration of interruptions to work and life by being prepared for this aspect of having your child start childcare. Form a contingency plan in advance, considering things like:

  • Who will take the day off work, if needed? (assuming you have a partner)
  • Is there anyone else you can call at short notice for help with childcare? Relatives, friends, neighbours? (and discuss this with them in advance)
  • Have back up meals ready in the freezer for both your sick child and the rest of the family to allow for the shifts to your available time and the juggle with altered work hours
  • Consider having a few gentle acute remedies on hand in the medicine cupboard to help support your little one back to good health, for example, a children’s immunity formula, some vitamin C or zinc, or a bottle of children’s Echinacea.  

Supplements

Opt for personalised, professional advice before self-prescribing supplements to your little ones to ensure best safety, optimal outcomes, and good use of the money you spend on any products. They are not always necessary.

There are many factors that influence the need for additional therapeutic support and caution needs to be taken around the use of certain products. All supplement should be dosed according to your child’s age, weight, and health history. 

 

When to seek professional support

Some children may require extra support to get their immune system back to a place where it is functioning well. Signs that extra support could be needed include:

Slow recovery time we would expect a child with good immune resilience to be able to recover from a common cold or other upper respiratory tract infection in around 7 days

Chronic infections – when symptoms don’t resolve and linger for weeks or months

Recurrent infections – while it is normal for kids starting childcare to get sick frequently, there can be such a thing as too much illness. This could look like back to back infections without complete symptom resolution or noticeably more frequent illness than other children at childcare

Presence of other conditions such as atopic conditions (eczema, asthma, or hay fever), food allergies or an autoimmune condition – these conditions indicate there may be preexisting dysregulated immune activity

Signs that could indicate gut dysfunction – e.g. abnormal bowel motions, signs of abdominal pain or discomfort, excessive flatulence or burping, picky eating, weight loss or changes to growth curve patterns. Multiple courses of antibiotics would also be cause for concern regarding digestive health.

Need more clarity?

I offer free clarity calls to help you gather more information about your child’s health and the potential underlying causes for compromised immunity. These calls are a great opportunity to ask questions, get some preliminary advice, and identify if additional support is needed. You can book a call with me here.

Georgie xx