Protecting our kids from the slew of coughs, colds, and other illnesses they often pick up from school has always been a priority for parents—and it feels especially pressing this year, as children head back to school amidst the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
Of course, we want our kids to be as healthy as possible right now—but it’s not just the novel coronavirus parents need to be wary of. According to naturopathic doctor Leslie Solomonian, N.D., an associate professor at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, pandemic life has also prevented children from coming into contact with other common viruses that are actually important to their developing immune systems.
“It is normal and healthy for kids to get a cough or cold almost monthly in their early years of school to boost their immunity to the point where their systems learn to navigate common illnesses efficiently,” she explains. With many children coming off of a year-plus of remote learning, this just hasn’t been possible.
Though sending your little ones (or not-so-little ones) back to school might seem more complicated than usual this year, there’s still plenty you can do to support their immunity and overall health.
1. Feed them a well-balanced, nutrient-rich diet
Most parents know the importance of what their kids eat, but feeding them nutrient-rich fruits, whole grains, and vegetables (especially dark, leafy greens, which contain important nutrients that act as food for the healthy bacteria in the gut) is a must these days, says Seattle-based pediatrician Whitney Casares, M.D., author of The Working Mom Blueprint: Winning at Parenting Without Losing Yourself.
“The gut microbiome is linked closely to promoting a strong immune system, and is also tied to healthy brain development,” she explains.
In addition to those fruits and veggies, Casares also recommends incorporating plenty of probiotic-rich foods, like yogurt, kefir, pickles, and cheese.
2. Incorporate a daily multivitamin
Chances are, you take a multivitamin to boost your intake of essential vitamins and minerals. If you don’t give a children’s version to your kids, it’s time to start.
“A good multivitamin ensures your child has adequate levels of immune-supporting vitamins and minerals, like magnesium, calcium, and zinc—especially if you have a picky eater who may not eat a diverse amount of fruits and vegetables,” says Needa Ogden, M.D., adult and pediatric allergy, asthma, and immunology specialist.
You’ll find kids’ multis in all sorts of forms, including liquid drops, chewables, and gummies. Finding an option your child enjoys taking will ensure you can consistently supplement their diet with this “insurance policy.” (A few favorites of The Vitamin Shoppe customers include Nordic Naturals Nordic Berries Multivitamin Treats and Smarty Pants Kids Complete Multivitamin.)
3. Make Sure They’re Getting Enough vitamin D
Vitamin D is best obtained through direct sunlight, since few foods offer it (and your kiddo might turn their nose up at the ones that do, such as fatty fish, beef liver, and egg yolks). If they’re not getting enough time in the sun, you can ensure your children meet their needs by having them take a vitamin D supplement. “Vitamin D deficiencies in kids have been linked to an array of issues, including a tendency to autoimmune disease, greater susceptibility to infection, and even mental health concerns,” says Solomonian.
Read More: Why Vitamin D Is Important For Your Immune System
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children receive 400 IU of vitamin D from food or other sources per day. If your child’s multivitamin doesn’t contain this amount, a vitamin D supplement comes in handy. “It is best delivered as a liquid and ideally can be added to food, such as a drop in yogurt or applesauce, or on top of a stir-fry,” Solomonian says. (The Vitamin Shoppe brand Children’s Liquid D3 offers 400 IU of the sunshine vitamin.)
4. Up their intake of vitamin C
Most of us know that this antioxidant is crucial for immune support—and its role in keeping us healthy can’t be understated. “Vitamin C can be obtained by incorporating fresh fruits and vegetables, such as citrus fruits, peppers, strawberries, and broccoli, into the diet,” says Ogden.
Read More: 7 Immune-Boosting Snacks Nutritionists Love
The National Institutes of Health recommends various daily intakes based on a child’s age. Children between ages one and three need 15 milligrams per day, while kids four through eight need 25 milligrams, and children nine to 13 need 45 milligrams. (Teenagers need 65 to 75 milligrams per day.)
When in doubt, Ogden recommends adding a 15-milligram vitamin C supplement to your kid’s routine. (Try Nature’s Plus Animal Parade Orange Juice Vitamin C Chewables.)
5. Encourage Them To run around
Research published in the journal International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Medicine has found that children who get an hour of moderate-intensity physical activity daily have more appropriately responsive immune systems than those who don’t.
What’s more: Exercise can also be an effective tool in maintaining your child’s weight, which is an important factor in their ability to fight infections, says American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson Gary Kirkilas, M.D., a pediatrician at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. “Obesity consistently remains a risk factor for having a serious case of COVID and childhood obesity remains a big problem in the U.S.,” he explains.
The CDC recommends that children ages three to five years old be physically active throughout the day and that children ages six through 17 get 60 minutes of activity per day for optimal growth and development. “This need not be structured, as household chores, playing tag, running after the dog, and having a kitchen dance party all count,” Solomonian notes.
6. Make sure their sleep routine is solid
Adequate sleep is a foundational pillar of children’s health. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children ages three to five need 10 to 13 hours of shut-eye per night, while kids ages six to 12 need nine to 12 hours, and teenagers need eight to 10 hours.
“Kids who get enough sleep tend to get sick less often and less severely,” says Solomonian. “It’s important that kids have a routine that helps them wind down at the end of the day, at approximately the same time, which helps their brains prepare for a restful night.” Whether you tell stories, read books, or put on some calming music, finding a routine that works for your child—and sticking to it—is a must-do.