As we go through another school year under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents are asking: What can we do to keep our children healthy? Are there ways to boost the immune system and ward off COVID-19 and other illnesses?
The answer is yes — but there are no magic wands or magic supplements. The best way to keep the immune system healthy is, basically, to take necessary steps to keep healthy. As boring as that sounds, it’s tried and true.
Here’s what you can do to help keep your children healthy this school year.
Give them a healthy diet
By "healthy" I mean a diet with lots of fruits and vegetables (five servings a day are recommended, and they should take up half of every meal plate), whole grains, and lean protein. A healthy diet also has dairy or another source of calcium, and healthy fats, like vegetable oils.
The foods to avoid are processed foods, foods with added sugar, and foods with unhealthy fats, like the saturated fats found in animal products. That doesn’t mean your child can’t ever eat cookies or ice cream. But if you want to your child to be healthy, they shouldn’t eat those foods every day. (The Academy of Dietetics and Nutrition has suggestions for healthier baked goods and other ways to make your family’s diet healthier).
There are many supplements that claim to boost your immune system. While the jury is still out as to whether most of them make a real difference, none of them take the place of a healthy diet. If you have a child who refuses vegetables or otherwise has a limited diet, a multivitamin with iron may make sense; talk to your doctor about whether vitamins or supplements are a good idea for your child.
Make sure they get enough sleep
We all need sleep to refresh and recharge our bodies, and that includes children. The amount of sleep a child needs varies by age (from 12 to 16 hours a day for infants to eight to 10 hours for teens) and also from child to child (some just need more than others). You can encourage healthy sleep by limiting screens — for teens, devices really should be shut off an hour or two before bedtime and preferably not be in the bedroom at night — and keeping to a regular schedule.
Get them active
Exercise keeps us healthy and less likely to get sick. Children should really be active for an hour a day. "Active" doesn’t have to mean playing a sport or going to the gym; it could be playing at the playground or going for a walk. More is not necessarily better; if you have a child who is a serious athlete, exercising several hours a day, make sure that the exercise isn’t eating into sleep or causing burnout, both of which could cause problems with the immune system. Speaking of which…
Stress makes us less healthy and more prone to infection. Make sure that kids have downtime to play, and access to activities and people that make them happy (or whatever version of that the pandemic allows). Spend time together as a family, and create opportunities for your children to talk about anything that might be worrying them. The pandemic has made many children depressed or anxious, so if you have concerns about your child’s moods or emotional health, talk to your doctor.
Make sure they are up to date on important vaccines
Immunizations protect us from all sorts of illnesses. Check with your doctor to see if your child is up to date on immunizations. The flu shot is recommended yearly for all people 6 months of age or older, and will be particularly important this year: not only is the combination of influenza and COVID-19 a bit frightening, but every cold symptom this winter means lost school or work while waiting for test results. And please, vaccinate everyone in your family who is eligible against COVID-19; it is safe and makes a big difference when it comes to preventing severe disease.
Don’t forget the simple precautions
Everyone in the family can take simple precautions to help stay healthy. Wash your hands. Cover your coughs and sneezes with your elbow. Stay away from sick people to the extent that you can. Masks can help, too, especially in crowded indoor spaces.
If your child has a health problem that could make it harder to fight off an infection, talk to your doctor about any extra or different precautions you should take.Follow me on Twitter
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