Though my family has chosen to homeschool for various reasons, we’re not immune to the influx of illness as school begins. We aren’t outside as much as the weather gets colder, and our trips veer away from outdoor adventures toward library trips, homeschool co-ops, and other places where germs love to hang out.
Looking around a public place you would think that chemical hand sanitizer is the best way to avoid illness (those dispensers are everywhere!). In reality, our best defense against illness is a strong immune system.
Building up the body’s natural defenses doesn’t happen overnight though… it takes time! I’ve learned it’s important to start an immune-boosting measures well before these activities/school starts, so we have a better chance of avoiding illness.
How to Boost Kids’ Immune Systems (in Time for Back to School)
Of course, we can’t prevent every cold or flu bug from making us ill. But, naturally boosting the immune system is one sure-fire way to strengthen our body’s defenses against common germs.
When the carefree days of summer are winding down, I switch my focus to supporting immune system strength. Here are the things we do:
A healthy diet plays an important role in boosting the immune system. But, getting picky eaters to eat healthy isn’t always easy. Try these suggestions and recipes to get your kids off to a good start this school year.
While there’s lots of debate about what we should eat (and when), here’s one principle we can all get behind: If a food is highly processed, contains chemical preservatives, dyes, or artificial sweeteners, then it is not a healthy option.
These unhealthy foods often cause inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation lowers the body’s ability to fight off infection. (Definitely not what you want during cold and flu season!)
So, I encourage my children to eat plenty of these nutrient-rich foods:
- free-range eggs
- nuts and seeds
- wild-caught fish
- organic leafy greens
- colorful vegetables and fruits
- grass-fed beef, free-range poultry, and even organ meats
These foods will provide the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients needed to support a healthy body and mind.
Check out these healthy breakfast ideas for quick and easy morning meals. My kids also enjoy helping me plan and prepare healthy snacks and lunches. I find they are always more receptive to healthy food when they have a hand in making their own food choices.
Working With Picky Eaters
Junk food is everywhere. This can be extremely frustrating for parents (including me). But, who can blame a child for choosing ‘veggie’ chips over actual veggies?
This guide will help you encourage picky eaters to make healthy choices. Learning to eat healthy from a young age sets children up for a brighter future. Although there may be strong resistance at first, just know it will get easier.
Physical activity is so important for overall health. Aside from helping maintain a healthy weight, exercise improves heart health, brain function, and may even impact the body’s immune system.
This 2019 review suggests that exercise diversifies the bacteria in our gut. We also know that the gut is where about 70 percent of our immune system lives. Having a wide variety of good bacteria in the gut strengthens the immune system so we can fight infection.
Exercising as a family is a great way to encourage children to be physically active. These are some of my kids’ favorite ways to have fun and exercise at the same time.
- Nerf fight
- dance party
- exercise scavenger hunt
- jump rope
- hula hoop contests
- climbing on our ninja line or our treehouse
Anything that can be turned into a game is a big hit in our family. We all need unstructured time to move in ways that feel good. Doing so often has many positive benefits (for kids and adults).
Another way to increase the diversity of bacteria in the digestive tract is to spend time playing in the dirt. Even a baby’s immune system can benefit from being exposed to the microbes found in dirt.
This 2009 article in the New York Times states that playing in the dirt “trains the immune system” to know what the body needs protection from (and what it shouldn’t waste its energy on).
Unfortunately, when school begins kids spend a lot more time indoors. To combat this, we often walk barefoot through the yard, work in the garden together, and create things with natural materials like sticks, rocks, and leaves.
It’s amazing what a little dirt on your hands and running around the yard can do for the mind and body!
Rest is best when you are sick, but getting quality sleep also plays a key role in preventing illness. Cultivating good sleep habits before the kids go back to school is a great way to ease into a new routine.
We know from studies that sleep helps enhance immune defenses. Interestingly, a healthy immune system also supports sleep through signals sent from immune cells.
Here are my best tips for encouraging kids to get a good night’s sleep as they prepare to head back to school.
Start a Routine
Begin setting a bedtime a week or two before school starts. A consistent (and early) bedtime helps to regulate the sleep cycle, and influence the body’s natural circadian rhythm.
Reading is our favorite pre-bed activity. It is a relaxing way for the kids to wind down that we all look forward to. We set aside half-an-hour before the lights go out to read as a family or in smaller groups.
Turn Out (All) the Lights
My kids do not sleep with a night light. Light (even in small amounts) can disrupt the body’s production of melatonin during the night.
The blue light from TVs, computer games, and other devices also suppress melatonin. Limit the use of these devices before bedtime.
Soothe Worried Minds
When it’s time to head back to school, kids can be anxious with thoughts of what a new school year will bring. Or for some kids, bedtime is always a stressful event. Some natural ways we soothe anxiety and encourage a good night’s sleep include:
- drinking herbal tea (chamomile and catnip are favorites in my house)
- rubbing magnesium body butter onto the feet
- using sound machines. We love the gentle “rain” music option.
- using a sleepytime foot spray or relaxing pillow spray with essential oils
Setting up a soothing bedtime routine is easy and has many benefits for kids. Set the tone for the entire year with a health-promoting bedtime routine.
Many herbal remedies have immune-strengthening properties. We use herbs as preventative medicine. These herbs have a wide range of nutritious benefits that are easily absorbed by the body while also supporting a healthy immune system.
- Chamomile: Chamomile is my favorite herb for children! It is a mild, soothing herb with many health benefits. One way we enhance our bedtime routine is with my Sleep Easy Blend. It is equal parts chamomile, catnip, and peppermint steeped for 30 minutes. (I only give the kids about ½ a cup of tea to avoid trips to the bathroom in the night.)
- Echinacea: Echinacea is widely known for its immune-boosting properties. I always have dried echinacea on hand to add to tea blends during cold and flu season. Echinacea tincture can easily be added to water, juices, and even smoothies when there isn’t time for tea.
- Elderberry: Perhaps my favorite cold and flu herb is elderberry. I make elderberry syrup which is a delightfully tasty combination of elderberries, cinnamon, honey, and ginger. During cold and flu season we take small doses of this syrup every day, and larger ones when we are sick. But my favorite way to boost my kids’ immune systems with elderberry is to make these elderberry popsicles. They are perfect for this time of year!
- Eucalyptus: I keep this tincture on hand for respiratory issues, but its antimicrobial properties help boost the immune system too.
There are many other herbs support the immune system and I mention all of the ones I keep on hand for illnesses in this podcast. But, these remedies are the ones I use most to support my family’s health and avoid illness.
Taking supplements will not fix a poor diet. But, even for kids that eat healthy, getting all the needed vitamins and nutrients from food can be tricky.
Taking supplements is a way to fill in what an otherwise healthy lifestyle is missing. These are the supplements I give to my children that benefit their overall health in a variety of ways.
Probiotics provide good bacteria that are important for gut health. As I mentioned above, the diversity of gut flora supports a healthy immune system.
Probiotics are beneficial after taking a round of antibiotics. That’s because antibiotics wipe both the good and bad bacteria from the digestive. But, we take a quality spore-based probiotic, along with eating fermented foods like sauerkraut and kefir, and hopefully avoid the need for antibiotics in the first place.
I mix probiotics into smoothies or add the spore-based ones mentioned above into baked goods. Another option is to make these Strawberry Probiotic Jello Gummies for a healthy snack kids can take to school.
I keep vitamin C powder on hand throughout the winter. It has definitely helped decrease the time it takes to recover from a cold or flu bug.
Add 1/4 tsp to water or smoothies daily for the first two weeks before and after school has started. This will strengthen the immune system as kids are easing into a new environment.
We used to acquire enough vitamin D for our bodies by simply spending time outdoors. Especially as children begin spending more time indoors, vitamin D (which impacts the immune system among other functions in the body) levels drop.
Most children’s vitamins will contain some vitamin D. However, dosage amounts can be a controversial topic. I check my children’s level of vitamin D around the end of August and then again in the winter to make sure they are getting enough, but not too much.
My best advice is to work with a trusted naturopathic doctor that will help you determine how much vitamin D to supplement for children.
Magnesium has some pretty miraculous benefits. A 2003 review published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition states that magnesium plays an important role in building a healthy immune system. Since so many of us are deficient (due to poor soil and poor diets), it’s especially important to include supplemental magnesium daily.
Using magnesium topically is a quick and effective way to get it into the bloodstream. I use this topical magnesium spray each night before bed. Other ways to ensure kids get a magnesium boost include:
- Adding ½ cup of Epsom salt or magnesium crystals to a warm bath. A few drops of lavender essential oil (mixed in a carrier oil) will make this an even more calming experience.
- Rub this homemade magnesium body butter onto children’s feet before bed.
There are so many wellness benefits of magnesium (for kids and adults) beyond boosting the immune system. I highly recommend using this mineral often for overall health.
Gelatin is one of my favorite healthy foods and has many health benefits.
Gelatin contains anti-inflammatory properties that help to heal the intestinal tract. Regularly consuming gelatin is a good way to keep one of our major lines of defense in working order.
Here are a few of my family’s favorite recipes using gelatin:
- Homemade Marshmallows
- Chewable Vitamins Recipe
- Homemade Healthy Jello
- Homemade Fruit Snacks
- Brain Power Smoothies
These recipes make it so easy to get lots of healthy gelatin into my family’s diet.
Healthy Hygiene Routine
I don’t use antibacterial products, but I do try to instill in my children the importance of personal hygiene. Good personal hygiene is one of the best ways to avoid illness.
Sometimes we all just need a reminder of the little things that can be important in keeping us healthy. Starting these habits young will help them stick as kids grow.
We don’t use antibacterial soap at home, and if we’re out I bring along natural soap or soap spray. We always wash our hands after going to the bathroom and before we sit down to eat.
When washing our hands we get them wet, add soap (their favorite is this foaming hand soap) and scrub while singing ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘The ABCs.’ Once we are done singing, simply rinse and dry.
I encourage my kids to keep a bottle of this natural hand sanitizer with them, too. That way they aren’t tempted to use the chemical-filled ones in stores.
Clean Mouth & Teeth
As a place of entry for many types of bacteria, our mouths and teeth need a great deal of care. Unfortunately, most of us don’t learn the best way to brush our teeth until we are much older (or at all).
Using a natural toothpaste (my kids love this squeezable homemade one), teach your children to use the Bass Method of brushing. The main difference between this and regular brushing is the wiggling action that takes place on the gums. This method helps get bacteria away from the gum line for healthy gums and teeth.
We use a small sand timer to make sure we spend enough time cleaning our teeth morning and night.
I do my best not to rush bath time. Taking time to cleanse the body is an act of self-care. I want to instill in my children that this is a time to pay special attention to what our body’s need.
My kids love bubble baths. But, it’s probably no surprise that I don’t care for the store-bought bubble bath soaps. They are loaded with fragrances and chemical preservatives (no thank you!).
That’s why I decided to create my own natural bubble bath recipe. These are great because you can choose what essential oils to use when creating a fun, chemical-free bath for kids (or adults).
Keeping ourselves healthy is important, but I also want to share with my kids how to avoid spreading their germs. This helps my kids understand that their actions affect other people and that they can help improve others’ health.
Some things we talk about include:
- Sneezing and coughing into a tissue, our elbows, or shoulders.
- Washing our hands after sneezing, coughing, or blowing our noses. (And making sure we don’t touch anything or anyone beforehand.)
- Asking for tissues when we need one rather than wiping our noses with a shirtsleeve.
These are all things that I talk to my kids about as we go about our day (they naturally come up often!).
Most importantly, kids need to understand that they have a lot of power over their health. With a little guidance, they will develop strong health habits that serve them as they grow.
Putting It Into Practice
There are many ways to boost the immune system and it can feel overwhelming sometimes. But don’t be discouraged! Even small changes can make a big impact on your child’s immune system. Start with diet, sleep, and exercise and then incorporate some of the other suggestions once you have those working for you.
Learn more about how to optimize your child’s health from Dr. Talya Miron-Shatz on Medical Decision Making & Being an Informed Patient.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Sheila Kilbane, MD, a board-certified pediatrician, trained in integrative medicine. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
How do you support your kids’ immune systems before they head back to school?
- Cardile, V. (2012). Gelatin tannate reduces the proinflammatory effects of lipopolysaccharide in human intestinal epithelial cells. Clinical and Experimental Gastroenterology, 61. doi:10.2147/ceg.s28792
- Irwin, M. R. (2019). Sleep and inflammation: partners in sickness and in health. Nature Reviews Immunology. doi:10.1038/s41577-019-0190-z
- Jane E. Brody. (2009, January 26). Babies Know: A Little Dirt Is Good for You. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/27/health/27brod.html
- Nieman, D. C., & Wentz, L. M. (2019). The compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system. Journal of Sport and Health Science, 8(3), 201-217. doi:10.1016/j.jshs.2018.09.009
- Sisson, M. (2014, March 26). Vitamin D: Sun Exposure, Supplementation and Doses. Retrieved from https://www.marksdailyapple.com/vitamin-d-sun-exposure-supplementation-and-doses/
- Tam, M., Gómez, S., González-Gross, M., & Marcos, A. (2003). Possible roles of magnesium on the immune system. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 57(10), 1193-1197. doi:10.1038/sj.ejcn.1601689