Young girl smiling with a big glass of milk

Boosting Immunity


Feeling like your child is always coming down with some new bug or infection? You’re not imagining it. Kids get sick more than adults because their immune systems are still developing. “Infants are born with a certain degree of immunity they received from their mothers in utero,” explains Gemma Furman, a registered nurse who has worked in Acute Care Pediatrics in the University of Virginia Health System and as a school nurse at Burnley-Moran Elementary. “As babies begin to age, the antibodies from mom go away, and they are left with a ‘naïve’ immune system.” As children interact with their world, their bodies are exposed to viruses, bacteria, microorganisms and other pathogens. This teaches their immune systems to build antibodies to fight future infections.  

How to Boost Your Child’s Immunity

Young boy at doctor appointment Exposure to things that can make us sick is the primary way the immune system grows. However, parents can encourage a healthy lifestyle to strengthen a child’s immune response. This includes: Sleep. Children under 1 years old need 12–16 hours of sleep a day, including naps; those under age 5 should get 11–14 hours; and children up to age 12 do best with 9–12 hours per day. Teens even need 8–10 hours of sleep a day. Diet. The nutrients in a balanced diet, especially from fruits and vegetables, are essential building blocks of a healthy immune system. “Vitamins can be helpful if your child struggles with picky eating, but they don’t replace a healthy diet,” Furman says. Gut Health. A healthy diet also helps build up healthy bacteria in the intestines, which is an essential part of a strong immune system. Probiotics can also support gut health, especially after taking antibiotics. Your child’s doctor can help you decide if a probiotic might be helpful. Vaccines. Vaccines allow your child to build immunity to serious diseases, such as whooping cough or measles, without the risk that comes with actually contracting these infections. With diseases like the flu that have multiple strains, a vaccine teaches the immune system to fight that specific type of virus, making the infection less severe even if your child is exposed to a different strain.  


Essential Oil Treatments

Alternative treatments such as essential oils or herbal medicine may offer some benefit in boosting immunity or helping your child navigate an illness. However, many of these products affect children differently than they do adults, and the body of research about their use in young people and babies is limited.

“It’s easy to assume that because a product is [labeled] ‘natural’ or ‘pure’ that it is safe and helpful.”

“It’s easy to assume that because a product is [labeled] ‘natural’ or ‘pure’ that it is safe and helpful,” Furman cautions. But these products aren’t regulated, and companies often don’t disclose ingredients or provide evidence to support claims about their benefits. “Many loopholes exist allowing companies to market products to make them appeal to parents as a ‘natural’ alternative to a more traditional medical treatment.” If you are considering alternative medical treatments for your child, discuss them with your child’s doctor first.  

When To Take A Child To The Doctor

In general, the many small germs of childhood aren’t something parents should be worried about. However, there are instances when exposure to new illnesses can be dangerous. If your child has a compromised immune system, this level of normal childhood exposure can be life-threatening. And even if your child is otherwise healthy, some diseases can be serious. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your child’s pediatrician if you notice:
  • Symptoms that go beyond a common childhood illness,
  • Symptoms are persisting for several days,
  • High fever,
  • Trouble breathing, and
  • Anything else that seems irregular or makes you concerned.
“I always tell parents, when it comes to your kids, trust your gut,” Furman advises. “Never be afraid to ask questions, and always be their loudest advocate.”  

KATHARINE PALJUG is a freelance writer, CharlottesvilleFamily‘s Family Health Editor and mother to one busy toddler. You can see more of her work at

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