Our immune systems have evolved over millions of years to protect the body from bacteria, viruses and other parasites. One of the main ways that a child’s immune system develops is by being exposed to a range of microbes and germs in the environment.
In recent decades we have changed our environment, killing many of the microbes in our houses with cleaning products. Many doctors today are now warning that it might not be good to be ‘too clean’ and have put forward the so-called ‘hygiene hypothesis’. This hypothesis suggests that one of the reasons that recent generations of children are suffering from increased rates of eczema, asthma, hay fever and auto-immune diseases is that our highly developed immune system attacks itself (or safe things like pollen) when there are not enough natural microbes and parasites around for it to deal with.
When can I stop sterilising my baby’s things?
Nevertheless, the bacteria that cause bad tummy bugs can grow quickly in a bottle, so these should be sterilised for your baby’s first year. However, you can encourage your baby to drink out of a beaker when you introduce solids.
After six months, there is no need to sterilise beakers, bowls and cutlery and they can simply be washed in hot soapy water, as they are easy to clean and do not breed germs in the same way that a warmed bottle of milk does.
Let babies get dirty!
Once babies start crawling, they want to explore what’s going on around them. They want to go out in the garden, get their hands dirty, pick grass and find interesting things – and you should allow them to do this. It is an important and normal part of their development, especially the development of their immune system.
When does my child need antibiotics?
Pushing your GP for a prescription for antibiotics every time your baby or child has a cold, the flu or a sore throat is not good for them. Most illnesses in children and babies are caused by viruses, while antibiotics only treat illness caused by bacteria. Bacteria will grow bigger and stronger if they are consistently exposed to antibiotics, so infections, such as bacterial ear infections, become harder and harder to clear. Antibiotics can also wipe out the natural flora (microscopic organisms) in your baby’s gut, which can really harm their digestion. As much as you can, let your baby go through the occasional mild cold or sore throat and they’ll build up their natural immunity.
Breastfeeding is good for babies’ immune systems
Guidelines suggest that exclusive breastfeeding for six months is the best thing for a baby. Breast milk contains antibodies that protect your baby and build up their immune system.
Make sure your child is up to date with the recommended immunisations that are available to them via the HSE.
Exercise, sunlight and fresh air
Getting outside a lot, even before your baby can walk, is great for them. Once they can move around, plenty of outside exercise is good too. Fresh air and exercise helps babies eat and sleep better, and keeps them fit and stronger when fighting off bugs.
Sunlight stimulates production of vitamin D, which is a vital vitamin for immune systems. In northern countries like Ireland, it is not possible to manufacture enough vitamin D from sunlight and diet alone, so a vitamin D supplement is recommended.
Fruit and veggies
When you start introducing your baby to solids, make sure you include plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, which are full of immune-boosting vitamins and minerals.
Lots of water
Babies and small children need to drink plenty of water. We need liquid to keep our bodies hydrated and energised and water is the key way for delivering nutrients to all our body cells. This will keep your baby in a better state to fight off viruses and bugs.
Amino acids in proteins form the building blocks of the cells that make up the immune system (and all cells!). The immune system fights germs by increasing the number of its own cells, and to do this, it needs protein. So your baby needs foods like chicken, fish, eggs, lamb, lentils and other pulses.
Cut out the sugar
Many studies have shown that sugar – particularly processed sugar – suppresses the immune system and may promote the growth of ‘bad’ bacteria in the gut. So keep your baby’s sugar intake to a minimum to make sure they’re in a good state to fight off germs.
Keep things smoke-free
Keep your baby away from cigarettes – not only anybody smoking near them, but also anybody smoking outside and then coming back in. Being exposed to smoke increases the risk of SIDS, bronchitis, asthma and ear infections – all of which can run down a growing immune system. Try to get help with stopping smoking, but if you or your partner really can’t stop, then at least smoke outside the house and wash your face and hands, and ideally change your clothes when coming back in.