If you feel like your little one is constantly under the weather, you’re far from alone. Kids really do get sick a lot—especially in the first few years of life—and it’s actually not a terrible thing, because it indicates their immune systems are maturing.
“Their immune systems are learning to deal with viruses they encounter effectively,” explains naturopathic doctor Leslie Solomonian, N.D., an associate professor at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine.
Of course, that doesn’t make it any less frustrating when your munchkin seems to spend half the winter sneezing. So what’s a parent to do? While you can’t control whether or not your child gets sick, you can nourish their inner defenses with the help of a healthy lifestyle and a handful of natural immune supplements for kids. Here are five that health experts often recommend.
1. Vitamin D
Also known as the “sunshine vitamin” since we’ve traditionally gotten it from sun exposure, vitamin D has shown to have a direct impact on our immune system. The nutrient acts as an immune modulator, meaning that it helps bolster immune function when it needs to respond to some sort of threat.
It’s understandable that kids might be low on vitamin D during the wintertime. Not only does the sun set early but colder weather makes outdoor outings and playtime much less appealing. And while kids can find vitamin D in fortified foods, such as milk and breakfast cereals, it’s difficult for them to meet their needs through food alone, points out that The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Brittany Michels, M.S., R.D.N., L.D.N.
For that reason, Michels recommends calculating how much vitamin D your child already gets from food each day and adding in a vitamin D supplement as needed to get those under 12 months old up to 400 IU and those younger than 13 years up to 600 IU per day total.
You can also ask their pediatrician to test them for vitamin D deficiency to confirm how much of a boost they really need.
2. Vitamin C
A powerful antioxidant, vitamin C bolsters your immune system by warding off harmful free radicals lurking in our environment that can contribute to oxidative stress, a state that plays a role in the development of a host of chronic health issues. For this reason, it’s one of the most popular immune supplements for kids and adults alike.
A balanced diet mostly satisfies the daily vitamin C requirement for children, which is 40 milligrams for children up to six months old, 50 for children between seven and twelve months, and then drops to 15 milligrams for children ages one to three, 25 for children four to eight, and 45 for children nine to 13. However, kids may not meet their needs for various reasons, including food preferences, food insecurity, or increased needs due to malabsorption or other medical conditions.
A vitamin C supplement may also be particularly beneficial if your child has low iron levels. Research shows that iron is also helpful for maintaining a healthy immune system—and since vitamin C promotes iron absorption, it’s important to make sure your child is getting enough. One study published in the journal Biomedical and Environmental Sciences suggests that 50 milligrams of vitamin C per day can be helpful here.
Did you know that an estimated 70 percent of your immune system is located in your gut? Yep, there’s a clear connection between your gut and immune health—and probiotics (good-gut bacteria) help support a healthy gut balance and may support immune cell function, explains The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Rebekah Blakely, R.D.N.
The amount of these good-for-you bacteria in different products varies, but most children’s probiotic supplements offer between one and five billion CFUs, notes Michels. She recommends starting children under one year old with one or two billion CFUs; otherwise, follow label instructions.
For the tiny tykes, consider powder or liquid probiotic supplements, which are easier to mix into breast milk, formula, and soft foods. Older children, meanwhile, might enjoy getting their healthy bacteria in gummy form.
The mineral zinc has long been hailed for its immune system benefits. “Zinc is required to activate hundreds of enzymes, including those required in immune function, cell division and growth, and protein metabolism,” says Michels. Research confirms the important role it plays in promoting immunity amongst children, particularly those with poor nutrition.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), babies up to six months old need two milligrams of zinc per day, children seven months to three years need three milligrams, children ages four to eight need five, and children nine to 13 need eight. “Ensuring adequate dietary zinc intake is essential for the immune system so if parents suspect their children aren’t meeting baseline needs then supplementation is recommended,” says Michels. Though most children’s multivitamins provide some zinc, talk to a dietitian or your pediatrician about incorporating an additional supplement if your kid’s multi and diet alone don’t get them to their daily requirements, she recommends.
Plenty of research, including one study published in the Journal of International Medical Research, has shown that this antioxidant-rich berry can promote a robust immune system, particularly in the face of challenges. While there’s no recommended daily amount of elderberry to follow when giving it to children (most research on it has been conducted on adults), it is still amongst the most popular immune supplements for kids. Blakely recommends following the dose recommendations from the manufacturer of any supplement you use or asking your doctor or dietitian for suggestions.