Healthy eating to support your baby’s immune system
Your baby’s immune system and how it develops
It might be hard to imagine, but your child’s immune system started developing before they were even born. Your antibodies were passed to your baby through the placenta, and they continue to protect them in the first months of life, against the bacteria, viruses or allergens that you’ve already been exposed to. As their immune system develops, your baby will create their own antibodies. Mild childhood illnesses stimulate the immune system, triggering the creation of more antibodies that fight illnesses and prevent them in the future.
Amazingly, the immune system keeps a record of every bacteria or virus it has been exposed to, which is why it responds so quickly the next time you come into contact with the same illness.
Nutrition builds your baby’s natural defences
Over the last few years, there has been a lot of research focused on the gut. It is the home of most of our immune cells, which is why a healthy balanced diet is key in promoting a healthy immune system. From the moment your child is born, breastmilk is the best source of nutrition, providing all the necessary nutrients and factors, including antibodies, that support their immune system. When you start weaning, a wide range of nutrient-rich foods, including good sources of prebiotics, will help build your child’s natural defences and contribute to their long-term health.
Breastfeeding: nature knows best
The first few years of a child’s life is a period of significant growth and development. Breastmilk naturally contains most of the nutrients your child will need for growth, including carbohydrates, fat and protein as well as compounds that will benefit your child’s immune system, such as antibodies and prebiotics.
It’s fascinating that your antibodies pass to your baby through breastmilk. For example, if you have a cold when you’re breastfeeding, the antibodies you produce to fight the cold will automatically be passed to your baby through your breastmilk, supporting them in fighting against the cold as well. Did you know that when your child is sick, your breastmilk composition will adapt to further support your baby’s immune system?
Breastfeeding in light of Coronavirus
Today, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that the virus can be transmitted through breast milk. The WHO advises that mothers continue breastfeeding given its numerous benefits. We also believe the benefits of breastfeeding outweigh any potential risks of transmission of the virus through breastmilk or by being in close contact. However, this is an individual decision which we strongly encourage you to discuss with your midwife, health visitor or GP.
Symptomatic mothers well enough to breastfeed, should take precautions to limit potential spread of the Coronavirus to their baby. This includes wearing a mask when near their child (including during feeding), washing hands before and after contact with their child (including feeding), and cleaning/disinfecting contaminated surfaces –as should be done in all cases where anyone with confirmed or suspected Coronavirus interacts with others, including children.
If a mother is too ill, she should be encouraged to express milk and give it to the child via a clean cup and/or spoon, or consider asking someone who is well to feed the expressed breast milk to the baby –all while following the same infection prevention methods, subject to medical advice.
While you're breastfeeding, it's important to look after yourself too. From staying well hydrated to eating a healthy balanced diet while breastfeeding, the nutritional choices you make enable your baby to get the vitamins and minerals they need to support their growth and development, while also helping you sustain your energy levels. And finally, take some rest throughout the day.
When breastfeeding is not possible, it’s important to choose a suitable age-appropriate formula. Formula milk will supply your child with all the necessary nutrients for the first six months. Before using any formula milk, please consult your midwife, health visitor or GP for advice
Afterwards, you can start to introduce solid foods to your baby’s diet, following the advice of your midwife, health visitor or GP.
In addition to milk, children between six months and five years may need additional supplements like vitamin D, which can be prescribed by your paediatrician.
Diet and the Coronavirus: the facts
The Coronavirus is an infectious disease. There is currently no evidence that any specific foods or diet can protect against or treat Coronavirus.
It is advised to eat a healthy balanced diet, rich in fruit and vegetables that are a good source of nutrients that support the immune system. This applies to both adults and children.
Good hygiene practices, social distancing, self-isolation – especially of those who show symptoms, are currently the best ways to prevent infection.
In general, our health always benefits a balanced diet, regular exercise and good sleeping habits. Now more than ever, we need to take extra good care of ourselves by observing all the recommendations issued by our health authorities.
How nutrients support your baby’s immune system
Your child’s growth and development depend on a healthy diet. We know the benefits of the five food groups, and the importance of not consuming too much sugar and salt. But when it comes to supporting the immune system, specific vitamins, minerals and prebiotics play an essential role. Nutrient-rich foods can be incorporated into your child’s diet after six months, in accordance with your healthcare professional’s recommendations.
Iron is essential to the formation of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen around the body. Iron supports cognitive development in children. Iron deficiencies, known as anemia, can affect the immune response, leading to an increase in infections in children.
Thankfully, there’s a wide array of iron-rich foods to choose from, including red meat and plant-based alternatives, beans and nuts, wholegrains such as brown rice, leafy green vegetables – such as kale and spinach, plus fortified breakfast cereals and infant and follow-on formula and young child formula.
Vitamin C is a natural antioxidant used by white blood cells to fight infections, and it also helps with the absorption of iron. Vitamin C is found in many fruits and vegetables, such as oranges, kiwis, blackcurrants, peppers, broccoli and spinach.
Zinc is a mineral found in all cells throughout the body. It helps the immune system to fight off invading bacteria and viruses by creating new cells and enzymes. It also helps to heal wounds. Your child’s daily zinc requirements can be found in nutrient-rich foods, such as meat, dairy products (such as milk and cheese) and wholegrain breads and cereals.
Vitamin D plays a part in the normal functioning of your child’s immune system, which is your child´s first line of defence against infections. Vitamin D is also needed to absorb calcium in the body, contributing to the development of your child´s bones and teeth.
Normally, exposure to sunshine contributes to our natural daily need of Vitamin D. As many of us are currently in confinement to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, we may not be getting our daily dose of sunshine. So, it’s especially important to ensure we’re all getting enough vitamin D, be it through diet or vitamin D supplementation. Please consult your healthcare professional for information regarding vitamin D supplementation.
The best dietary sources of vitamin D are oily fish, such as salmon and mackerel, eggs, some mushrooms, fortified breakfast cereals or infant and follow-on formula as well as young child formula – check the label.
Vitamin A supports the immune system by strengthening white blood cells and generating the antibody immune response. Vitamin A also helps in the formation of cells as your child develops.
You can find vitamin A in animal-based products, such as liver and eggs, and dairy-based foods, such as yoghurts and cheese. The body can get vitamin A from some fruits, like mangos, and from dark leafy greens, like cabbage and kale, as well as from orange vegetable, like carrots and sweet potatoes.
Prebiotics encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria in your gut while protecting against harmful bacteria. In addition, fiber in foods such as wholegrains are important for gut health.
Prebiotics are found in bananas, chicory, onions, tomatoes and perhaps, more surprisingly, garlic. Certain infant formulas, as well as follow-on milks and young child formulas are fortified with prebiotics; the latter ones can complement a balanced diet.
The combination of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, protein sources such as meat or fish, fats and dairy will provide your child with the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that are essential to a healthy immune system. In times of confinement, careful meal planning and healthy snacks ensure that you’ll be able to provide your child with the most balanced diet possible.