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Building strong immunity in your children: what you need to know

The first 1000 days of a child’s life are widely-recognised as the most significant in shaping many aspects of a child’s future, including their health and immunity.

We sat down with immunologist, Dr Jenna Macciochi, to discuss your questions on how to build strong immunity and good health in your children.

Why do we need to focus on strong immunity?

The immune system is considered to be something that protects us against infection and illness, but actually, it has a far larger role. It works really closely with other systems in our body and plays a vital role in development, reproduction and healing.

Don’t children just develop a strong immune system through being exposed to everyday germs?

It’s important to ensure your child has lots of exposure to good germs. These will build a strong microbiota in the gut which helps to build strong immunity.

Your immune system is only ever as strong as the diversity of bugs that you have in your gut and other areas of your body. Getting these bugs right at the beginning is really important.

Exposure to good germs can come from having pets at home or eating a diverse range of foods from an early age for example. Playing outside in parks and the countryside is also really important: the environment we live in has its own microbiota. Urban areas tend to have a less diverse microbiota so it’s important to get into green space. We breathe in and swallow germs which nurture diversity in the gut and are really important for educating the immune system.

Is too much cleaning at home going to unnecessarily challenge my child’s immune system?

For a long time we’ve thought that there is too great a focus on cleanliness in our western culture, and that this negatively affects immunity. We now know that this isn’t the case: basic hygiene is really important. In our culture, immunity is challenged by inadequate exposure to good bugs in our environment that we breathe in, swallow and are exposed to each day without realising.

Certain chemicals may impact the microbiota on our body barriers such as the skin, gut and airways. Studies have shown that children living in households with heavy use of antibacterial cleaning products had lower levels of good bacteria. We don’t know which specific ingredients are the main culprits, and it appears that only heavy exposure is problematic. It is also important to remember that antibacterial cleaning is necessary in some situations - cleaning cooking surfaces after preparing raw meat for example.

Historically, women weren’t given the same antenatal care, and weren’t advised to take such strict dietary precautions during pregnancy. Did previous generations have weaker immune systems because of this?

In general, no. They probably had more exposure to good germs, took fewer antibiotics and ate diets containing fewer processed foods.

What should women should do pre-conception and during pregnancy to help build strong immunity in their children?

There haven’t been many studies on links between a woman’s pre-pregnancy health and the health of future children to be able to give solid advice on what to do pre-conception, but we do know that exercise, nutrition and gut health is important pre-conception. It’s also important to have a healthy level of vitamin D.

During pregnancy, it’s a good idea to take Omega 3 and vitamin D which are both really important for the immune system, along with any other supplements recommended by your healthcare provider.

Should men do anything pre-conception too to help build strong immunity and good health in their children?

There is more and more evidence about men’s role in the health of future children. It’s a good idea to supplement with Omega 3 and Vitamin D too.

Caesarean sections are known to impact a child’s microbiome, as is bottle feeding. What should parents do if vaginal birth or breast feeding is either not possible or something they choose not to do?

We don’t know exactly how caesarean sections or bottle feeding impacts the future health of the child and it’s important to remember that there are other factors that might affect their health.

If you’ve had a caesarean or have bottle-fed or both, it doesn’t mean that your child will by default go on to develop allergies, intolerances or other illnesses.

Whilst vaginal births and breast feeding are the best options, don’t panic if you can’t or don’t want to do these.

It’s important to let kids play in the mud, get into the park and give them a wide range of foods when they are old enough to eat solids. The fibre in a diverse range of foods (fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains) will act as the prebiotic food to feed and cultivate those good gut bugs.

In summary, what are 3 main factors that influence a child’s immunity in the first 1000 days?

1. Health of mother, and mother’s gut health.

2. Mode of birth:

Vaginal birth seems to lay foundations for stronger gut health. As a baby moves down the birth canal, it is exposed to lots of bacteria that seeds and shapes the baby’s gut health.

3. Method of feeding:

There are complex sugar molecules in breast milk that shape a baby’s microbiome. This is really important because it’s this microbiome that builds the immune system. The gut is the interface between world and immune system.

Health Lib articles should never replace the advice of your healthcare provider.


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