Healthy eating to support your baby’s immune system
- Nutrition in early life has lasting effects when it comes to immune system development and future health
- Your pregnancy nutrition is the first step in the development of your child’s immune system
- Zinc, iron, prebiotics and vitamins A, C and D are key to immune support
In your baby’s earliest days, the right nutrition has a big influence on their immune system development and future health. Why is the immune system so important? It fights off infections and enables immune responses throughout our lives. For young children, staying healthy helps them experience everything the world offers and helps build resilience.
Pregnancy: immune system development starts here
A child’s immune system starts developing before birth. As an expecting mother, your antibodies pass to your baby through the placenta. In the first months after birth, these antibodies continue to protect your child against the same bacteria, viruses or allergens that you have been exposed to.
For all the development in the womb, your baby’s immune system isn’t mature at birth, but there are things that can be done to help them get started. In the first few weeks and months of life, your baby needs particular nutrition to help their immune system develop. As it does, your baby will also create their own antibodies. Mild childhood illnesses stimulate the immune system, triggering the creation of more antibodies that fight diseases and prevent them in the future.
Here are a few steps you can take with nutrition to support your baby’s immune system.
Breastfeeding: nature knows best
The first few years of your child’s life are full of significant growth and development. Breastmilk naturally contains most of the nutrients your child will need, including carbohydrates, fat and protein, as well as compounds that will benefit your child’s immune system, such as antibodies and prebiotics.
When you breastfeed, you pass antibodies to your baby through your breastmilk. For example, if you have a cold while you’re breastfeeding, the antibodies you produce to fight the cold will be passed to your baby through your breastmilk. Your breastmilk composition will also adapt to support your baby when your child is sick.
So, if you’re breastfeeding exclusively for the first 4 to 6 months or so, look after yourself. From staying well hydrated to eating a healthy balanced diet, the nutritional choices you make help your baby get the vitamins and minerals they need to support their growth and development and stay protected against viruses and infections. It’s not all about the little one, though: good nutrition will also help you sustain your energy levels.
Introduce solids: make them nutrient-rich and age-appropriate
When your baby is ready to start solids (at around 6 months, but not before 4 months), you can start introducing solids as purees. Incorporate a variety of foods with a focus on certain nutrients that are known to support your baby’s immune system.
Zinc is a mineral found in all cells throughout the body. A mild deficiency in zinc can lead to impaired immune responses and impaired appetite in severe cases. Support your baby’s daily zinc needs with zinc-rich foods such as meat, dairy products (such as milk and cheese), and wholegrain breads and cereals.
Iron is essential to the formation of haemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen around the body. Iron deficiency, known as anaemia, can affect the immune response and lead to an increase in infections in children. Iron may also support cognitive development in children.
There are many iron-rich foods to choose from, including beef and lamb, fortified breakfast cereals, leafy greens like kale and spinach, and legumes like dried peas, beans or lentils.
Prebiotics encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria in your baby’s large intestine, which play an essential role in the way the immune system develops and responds to bacteria, viruses and allergens.
Prebiotics are found in a variety of foods, including bananas, apples, peas, onions, chick peas and oats. Some milks are fortified with prebiotics.
Vitamin D plays a part in the normal functioning of your child’s immune system. Vitamin D is also needed to absorb calcium in the body, contributing to the development of your child´s bones and teeth.
The best source of vitamin D is sunlight on the skin, but this needs careful management for young babies. Remember it’s important to be sun smart.
Include dietary sources of vitamin D such as salmon, tuna, mackerel and eggs where you can, and speak to your health care professional if you think your baby might be at risk of vitamin D deficiency.
Vitamin A helps maintain normal immune function. Vitamin A also plays an important role in development of normal vision.You can find vitamin A in animal-based products, such as eggs, and dairy-based foods, such as yoghurt and cheese. The body can obtain vitamin A from some fruits, like mangos, and from dark leafy greens, like cabbage and kale, as well as from orange vegetables, like carrots and sweet potatoes.
Your baby’s nutrition is an essential tool in supporting their immune system and helping them fight typical childhood illnesses. The combination of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, protein sources such as meat or oily fish, fats and dairy will give your child the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that are essential to support a well-functioning immune system.