Ask the Harvard Experts: Practical Steps to Boost Your Child’s Immune System

Ask the Harvard Experts: Practical Steps to Boost Your Child’s Immune System

Q: What steps can I take to help my child’s immune system strong?

A: There are no magic wands or magic supplements to maintain a strong immune system. It’s the same formula to help children stay healthy.

Give them a healthy diet. By “healthy,” I mean a diet with lots of fruits and vegetables (five servings a day are recommended, and they should take up half of every meal plate), whole grains, and lean protein. A healthy diet also has dairy or another source of calcium, and healthy fats, like vegetable oils.

The foods to ideally avoid or at least limit are processed foods, foods with added sugar, and foods with saturated fats found in animal products.

If you have a child who refuses vegetables or otherwise has a limited diet, a multivitamin with iron may make sense; talk to your doctor about whether vitamins or supplements are a good idea for your child.

Make sure they get enough sleep. The amount of sleep a child needs varies by age (from 12 to 16 hours a day for infants to eight to 10 hours for teens) and also from child to child (some just need more than others). You can encourage healthy sleep by limiting screens — for teens, devices really should be shut off an hour or two before bedtime and preferably not be in the bedroom at night — and keeping to a regular schedule.

Get them active. Exercise keeps us healthy and less likely to get sick. Children should really be active for an hour a day. “Active” doesn’t have to mean playing a sport or going to the gym; it could be playing at the playground or going for a walk.

Manage stress. Stress makes us less healthy and more prone to infection. Make sure that kids have downtime to play, and access to activities and people that make them happy. Spend time together as a family, and create opportunities for your children to talk about anything that might be worrying them.

Make sure they are up to date on important vaccines. Check with your doctor to see if your child is up to date on immunizations. The flu shot is recommended yearly for everyone 6 months of age or older. And please, vaccinate everyone in your family who is eligible against Covid-19; it is safe and makes a big difference when it comes to preventing severe disease.

Don’t forget the simple precautions. Everyone in the family can take simple precautions to help stay healthy. Wash your hands. Cover your coughs and sneezes with your elbow. Keep distance from sick people to the extent that you can.

(Claire McCarthy, MD, is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior faculty editor at Harvard Health Publishing. For additional consumer health information, please visit
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