Besides frequent hand-washing, which guards against spreading germs, these healthy habits can strengthen your child's developing immune system. Consider adding them to your arsenal this cold and flu season:
Breast-feed your baby. There is strong evidence that nursing decreases the incidence and severity of ear and respiratory-tract infections, diarrhea, meningitis, and urinary-tract infections. Some studies suggest that nursing may also help lower the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Others suggest lower rates of diabetes, certain forms of cancer, obesity, high cholesterol, and asthma in older children and adults who were breast-fed as infants. Colostrum--the thin yellow "premilk" that flows from breasts during the first several days after birth--is especially rich in disease-fighting antibodies. The AAP recommends that moms exclusively breast-feed for a baby's first six months, if possible.
Log in sleep time for baby. Studies show that sleep deprivation can make adults more susceptible to illness by reducing natural killer cells, immune-system weapons that attack microbes and cancer cells. The same is true for children, says Kathi J. Kemper, M.D., professor of general pediatrics at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C. Children in day care are particularly at risk for sleep deprivation because all the activity can make it difficult for them to nap. How much sleep do kids need? A newborn may need up to 18 hours of crib time a day; toddlers require 12 to 13 hours, and preschoolers need about 10 hours. "If your child can't or won't take naps during the day, try to put her to bed earlier," says Kemper.
Banish secondhand smoke. If you or your spouse smokes, quit. According to a report by the U.S. Surgeon General, secondhand cigarette smoke contains more than 250 chemicals known to be toxic or cancer-causing. Babies and children are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of secondhand smoke because their bodies are developing. Secondhand smoke increases a child's risk of SIDS and ear and respiratory infections, such as pneumonia. There's no safe level of secondhand smoke exposure. Designating a smoking area in your home, for example, is like having a nonchlorinated section of a swimming pool--impossible. If you absolutely can't quit smoking, you can reduce your child's health risks by smoking only outside the house and making your car a smoke-free zone. (Smoking with the window open doesn't eliminate secondhand smoke exposure.) Also, ask others not to smoke around your child. For advice on quitting, call 1-800-QUIT-NOW.
Don't pressure your pediatrician. Urging your pediatrician to write a prescription for an antibiotic whenever your child has a cold, the flu, or a sore throat is a bad idea. Antibiotics treat only illnesses caused by bacteria, "but the majority of childhood illnesses are caused by viruses," says Howard Bauchner, M.D., a professor of pediatrics and public health at the Boston University School of Medicine.
Studies show, however, that many pediatricians prescribe antibiotics at the urging of parents who mistakenly think it can't hurt. It can. Strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria have flourished as a result, and a simple ear infection is more difficult to cure if it's caused by stubborn bacteria that don't respond to standard treatment. Whenever your child's pediatrician wants to prescribe an antibiotic, make sure she isn't prescribing it solely because she thinks you want it. "I strongly encourage parents to say, 'Do you think it's really necessary?'" Bauchner says.