Children’s immune systems must develop in order to be more effective at fighting off dangerous bacteria and viruses that cause infections and diseases. By understanding the various components of children’s immune systems, parents and teachers can improve children’s immunity.
The central function of children’s immune systems is to differentiate between healthy, normal bodily substances and those substances that are foreign and invasive. Although babies may be more susceptible to these foreign substances, they are also born with some immunity, which they receive from the placenta. When these foreign substances–called antigens–enter a child’s body, he may become susceptible to them due to not having been exposed to the antigen previously. However, as children are exposed to more and varied types of antigens, they gradually build immunity. This process explains why children new to day care or preschool may initially contract many illnesses but later become less susceptible.
While children’s immune systems are comprised of the same tissues, organs, proteins and specific cells that protect people from harmful microorganisms, they do not reach full maturity until the child enters adolescence. One key element missing from an infant’s immune system is fully functioning white blood cells known as neutrophils, which are the body’s primary defense against bacterial infections. The Kids’ Health website (see Resources) goes into detail about features and potential problems in children’s immune systems.
Children have three types of immunity. The first type, innate immunity, is a natural protection that is specific to the human species. Your child receives this immunity in utero, when his body is pumped full of your antibodies. The second type, adaptive immunity, refers to immunity children develop as they mature. Having and healing from illnesses and immunizations are two ways young children gain adaptive immunity. The final type, passive immunity, is received through an outside source and protects the child in the short term. When mothers breastfeed their infants, the child receives helpful antibodies in the milk that help fight infection.
Many parents and teachers have jumped on the antibacterial product craze, investing in everything from alcohol-based hand sanitizers to all-purpose cleaners. The fact is, these products do not just kill harmful bacterial, but also kill helpful bacteria, making the body ultimately weaker and more susceptible to infections. While hand sanitizers are still helpful in a pinch, like on a long airplane ride, repeated use does not build children’s immune systems.
You can strengthen children’s immune systems with various approaches. Breastfeeding babies up to age two supports immunity. Reducing the use of antibiotics, except in the cases of more serious infections, can strengthen children’s resistance to infectious diseases. Avoiding foods that have lots of pesticides or antibiotic content also can boost immunity.