It has never been so tough to be a parent. It is a harsh enough test to face the realities of the global COVID-19 pandemic and the economic impact of the various lockdowns that communities have undertaken and may be asked to undertake again. Doing that while raising and reassuring children adds another level of challenge. In this blog post, we’ll take a look at some simple and pragmatic ways that parents, with help from their pediatricians, can support pediatric immunity as families prepare to return to school. From immunization, balanced nutrition, and supplementation to lifestyle choices, there are many strategies in the parenting toolkit that influence children’s abilities to ward off infection.
Why Pediatric Immunizations Matter
The world is patiently waiting for a coronavirus vaccine, something that researchers hope to have ready by mid-2021. Every year, parents make the sound decision to protect their children from serious diseases like measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis, whooping cough, and the seasonal flu. As little ones get older, the recommended vaccine schedule expands to include the meningococcal conjugate vaccine to protect against meningitis and bloodstream infections; the HPV vaccine to protect against cancers caused by HPV; and the Tdap vaccine to protect against tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough.
Immunization has, quite literally, changed the human experience. With dreaded diseases such as smallpox successfully eradicated and polio all but unknown in the first world, immunization has proven itself time and again.
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The Importance of Balanced Nutrition for Pediatric Immunity
As kids return to school in the middle of a global public health crisis, one thing that parents can do to ensure the health of their children is to take a good hard look at their diets. Evidence suggests that vitamin deficiency affects the mechanism of immune cells, so ensuring good nutrition is key to maintaining robust pediatric immunity.
With more than 23 million Americans living in “food deserts” – that is, with fresh food only available from more than one mile away – it is vital that parents teach their children that the instant “meal” offered by so many fast food outlets fails to provide much-needed nutrition. If the school canteen is serving up empty carbs and fat-laden reconstituted proteins, they may be failing to complement these dishes with a healthy serving of fresh fruit and vegetables.
So what can parents do to ensure that they are providing balanced nutrition for their family? The CDC recommends eating the rainbow: “Dark, leafy greens, oranges, tomatoes, and even fresh herbs are loaded with vitamins, fiber, and minerals. Adding frozen peppers, broccoli, or onions to stews and omelets gives them a quick and convenient boost of color and nutrients.” Try to include a range of colors and foods on their plates each day.
Of course, kids love sugar. But many times, they’ll happily accept the sweetness as fructose in an apple, blueberries, bell pepper, or even a serving of unfiltered fruit juice (a great opportunity to consume fiber and vitamins). If a child is introduced to these colorful and healthy foods as a toddler, they’re far more accepting of them as a teenager.
Adding Supplements to Children’s Diets
While a well-balanced diet is the best way to provide the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that a growing person needs, there are supplements to consider, particularly for vitamins with high deficiency rates.
For instance, vitamin D deficiency is highly prevalent in the US population, especially in those with little sun exposure and/or more melanin (darker skins). Raising Vitamin D levels is achieved very quickly and simply with supplementation. For children, VLS Pharmacy offers a liquid version of Vitamin D3, dispensed with a dropper, and providing 2000IU daily.
When looking for pro-immunity supplementation for children, try to find a product that is easy to take and tastes good, as these two considerations make it far more likely to be tolerated by a child. Vitamin C improves immune function, and a daily 500mg dose is available as a chewable that tastes great. Zinc is a mineral many people are deficient in, especially those on a vegetarian diet (high in nuts and legumes). VLS Pharmacy offers a zinc 5mg daily supplement in both lozenge and chewable forms.
A supplement that has gained massive attention over the last few years is fish oil. Infants supplemented with DHA, fish oil’s active ingredient, show improved language and communication skills. There is also accumulating evidence that the early development of executive functions such as planning, working memory, and attention control are influenced by DHA. The goal is 2 to 3mL per day.
Additional Steps to Take
We’ve covered immunization, balanced nutrition, and supplementation as strategies to ensure that a child’s growing body is robust and able to deal with life’s challenges. There are two more very important daily components for functional health though: exercise and sleep.
Exercise and sleep go hand-in-hand. If a child or teen is struggling to sleep, one of the key areas to address is exercise. Modern tech and school workloads drive children towards more sedentary lifestyles. We are, however, a body and mind combined, and it is as vital to care for the body as it is to care for the mind. The recommended daily amount of exercise for a child is 30 minutes. Anything goes! The aim is to raise the heart rate and make it fun. Some ideas include swimming, sports, dancing, walking the family dog, and playing tag.
Sleep is vital for overall health, growth, and maintaining a robust immune response. Kids ages 6 to 12 years old need 9 to 12 hours of sleep each night, and kids ages 13 to 18 years old need 8 to 10 hours each night. The key to good sleep is a positive bedtime routine. Power down blue-light emitting devices, such as computers, tablets, and television, at least 30 minutes prior to climbing into bed. Reduce activity levels and dim the lighting.
If a child cannot sleep, despite implementing good sleep hygiene, there are interventions that may be considered. Melatonin is known to influence many biological processes in the body, including circadian rhythms, immune system, neuroendocrine, and cardiovascular functions. There are also some interesting early results coming out from COVID-19 studies that suggest that the anti-inflammatory efficacy of melatonin may be beneficial in improving clinical outcomes of COVID-critical patients. Melatonin may be supplemented at 1 to 3mg in capsules, tablets, and child-friendly gummies.
Alternatively, you can consider L-theanine at 50 to 100mg twice daily as a starting dose to address a child’s anxiety. It is not always possible to find this in a child-friendly gummy or liquid form. If a child has a hard time swallowing tablets or capsules, open the capsule, add it to apple juice or cranberry juice (no citrus juices), and have the child drink it with a straw so that the poor flavor barely hits the tongue. L-theanine is associated with reduced anxiety, increased attention span, and increased focus (including the ability to perform better on tests).
Magnesium Glycinate is also great for sleep and anxiety and is available as a child-friendly drinkable powder. It may especially benefit children who engage with evening sports, which increases cortisol levels, impacting mood, and the body’s ability to shed weight. It can help them relax and fall asleep peacefully.
Parenting is no small task in a nutritionally-challenged culture with both technology and busy workloads playing into sleeping issues and exacerbating the lack of daily exercise. By paying attention to the five key pillars that support pediatric immunity – immunization, balanced, nutrition, supplementation, exercise, and sleep – parents are better able to support their children during this particularly challenging time.
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