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The immune system in childhood (What it is, resistance, lactation)

The function of your child’s immune system is to protect the body against bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other invaders. How does this complex system work? And how can you increase your child’s stamina?

What is the immune system?

Our immune system protects the body against all kinds of foreign invaders. It ensures that foreign substances such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites and allergens are stopped or destroyed if for some reason they have managed to enter the body.

The immune system is found throughout our body. It is made up of the skin, mucous membranes of the respiratory tract and intestines, saliva and stomach acid, white blood cells, and the lymphatic system. It is a complex system that tries by all possible means to protect the body against pathogens.

Innate defenses

  • The immune system consists of three parts:
  • the physical barrier
  • General (non-specific) defenses
  • specific defenses

Specific Defenses

Part of the immune system is innate, namely the physical barrier and general defense. Therefore, this part works from the birth of your child, although it still has to develop more.

The physical barrier must prevent pathogens from entering the body. The skin, mucous membranes, saliva, and stomach acid literally form a barrier between the outside world and the inside of the body. General defense tackles all intruders. This is done by the white blood cells in the blood, which try to destroy any harmful substances they come across.

And then there is also the specific defense that attacks germs in a very specific way. That specific defense has yet to develop throughout life.

Build resistance to pathogens

Your child should develop resistance to all sorts of specific pathogens after birth. This buildup occurs when your child first comes into contact with such a specific pathogen. Then the body produces antibodies and immune cells against that invader, that first time, the immune system remembers how to deal with that pathogen. If the same germ enters the body again later, the immune system immediately recognizes it and sends you those specific immune cells immediately.

For example, when your child is first infected with the chickenpox virus, they get sick. He will get chickenpox because the immune system cannot destroy this virus yet. But once he has chickenpox, his body builds up antibodies against that virus. Those antibodies will stay in his blood forever. If he ever comes into contact with the chickenpox virus again, he won’t get sick again because he has become immune to it.

The older your child is, the more antibodies he will accumulate and the stronger his immune system will become. The immune system is “mature” around the end of puberty. That doesn’t mean he will never get sick again, but he has become much less susceptible to illness.

Why does my child catch colds often?

Still, it seems odd that children only get chickenpox once, but they catch a cold much more often. That’s because there is only one chickenpox virus, but numerous cold viruses. If your child just had a cold due to the X virus and the X virus comes back a month later, your child has already accumulated antibodies to the X virus. You won’t get a cold again. But if a Y cold virus or Z virus appears, then you are not yet immune to it. So you will catch a cold again and the process of infection and recognition will begin again.

Children can easily catch colds more than ten times a year. But every time you have a cold, your immune memory develops more and more.

Immune system in newborn babies

That “recognition” of specific pathogens is not yet in the system of newborns. They are born with an immature immune system. However, babies are protected against certain specific germs, albeit temporarily. During pregnancy, the placenta acted as a conduit for antibodies. These are antibodies against pathogens with which the mother came into contact before or during pregnancy. But the supply of antibodies the baby receives from her mother is limited. After birth, babies can live with it for about three months. They then have to build and expand their own antibodies.

Despite the reserve of antibodies, babies are very susceptible to viruses and bacteria for which they do not yet have antibodies. And some fairly harmless pathogens can have much more serious consequences for a baby than for adults, for example the herpes virus that causes cold sores is very dangerous for babies.

Antibodies through lactation

Breastfeeding helps strengthen the baby’s immune system. Breast milk contains antibodies against pathogens. For example, breast milk helps the development of your child’s intestinal mucosa and intestinal flora. Through breastfeeding, you get all sorts of “good” bacteria in your intestines, making it difficult for bad bacteria to settle there. And breast milk provides a protective layer on the intestinal wall, making it difficult for pathogens to enter the body through the intestines.

In addition, breast milk contains millions of white blood cells, proteins, and enzymes that stimulate the development of your baby’s immune system. For example, it contains an enzyme that fights streptococcal bacteria through the baby’s saliva and a protein that inhibits the growth of viruses.

Therefore, research has shown that breastfed babies generally have fewer infections of the stomach and intestines. They are less likely to get ear infections than formula-fed children. Breastfeeding can also reduce the baby’s risk of asthma and eczema.

Building resistance with vaccines

Your child accumulates antibodies to pathogens when he first comes into contact with the germ. If you are vaccinated against diseases, you will also develop resistance in this way. During a vaccination, your body becomes “infected” with a small dose of weakened or dead germs from a specific disease.

A minuscule amount of that pathogen is injected, for example, mumps. This gives it a chance to make antibodies against the mumps, without actually making you sick. He becomes immune to it. If your child comes into contact with real mumps again later, the immune system immediately recognizes these germs, the immune system sends the correct antibodies, which have already been present in his body since the vaccination. In this way, the pathogen becomes harmless and you will not have real mumps.

Nutrition and resistance

To strengthen your child’s immune system, it is important that he eat a healthy and varied diet. Your child needs all kinds of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and fats to maintain his stamina. The most important vitamins for endurance are vitamins A, C, D, E and B6. These vitamins ensure, among other things, the production of white blood cells.

Vitamin A is found primarily in fish, meat, dairy, and eggs, and as an additive in margarine, low-fat margarine, and liquid baking and frying products.

Vitamin C is mainly found in fruits, vegetables and potatoes, especially bell peppers, citrus fruits, kiwis, berries and strawberries.

Vitamin D is found primarily in fatty fish and as an additive and margarine, low-fat margarine, and liquid baking and frying products.

Vitamin E is mainly found in sunflower oil, low-fat margarine, margarine, bread, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits.

Vitamin B6 is found primarily in meat, eggs, fish, nuts, bread and cereal products, legumes, vegetables, and dairy products.

Reduced resistance

Factors such as lack of sleep, stress, certain medications, and poor nutrition can all influence your child’s resilience. If you have reduced resistance, the immune system works worse than normal and it is more likely that pathogens can make you sick, the chance of an infection is then higher.

Tips to increase immune resistance

In principle, you can ignore any medication that would increase your child’s resistance. For good endurance, it is especially important to eat a healthy and varied diet, drink and sleep enough and get enough exercise. It is good that you drink enough water to maintain fluid balance in your body. This helps prevent the mucous membranes from drying out, which is important for the physical barrier of the immune system.

It’s also important not to neglect hygiene as everything your child touches contains bacteria, so getting used to washing your hands regularly makes the risk of pathogen contamination much lower.


All the information we give you in this article is indicative as each child and each family is different and unique.


Carolina González Ramos

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