How to Increase Immunity in Babies?

10 min read

By Dr. Sagar Bhattad, MBBS, MD Pediatrics
DM - Pediatric Clinical Immunology and Rheumatology, Aster CMI Hospital
7 years of experience

Immunity in Babies

Has your baby ever caught a cold? A cough? A fever? The answer could be a definite yes for all three. Have you ever been to a pediatrician repeatedly for the same type of illness and heard them say your baby has a weak immunity? Many of us are bound to have heard it at least once in our multiple visits to the doctor.

So, what is immunity? Why does immunity differ from person to person? How is it different for a child or a newborn? Read on to know all about immunity in babies.

In This Article

What is Immune System?

The immune system is the body’s defense mechanism. It is a combination of white blood cells, tissues, organs, and cells. They all work together to help the body fight off foreign particles which can cause an infection or illness.

Different Types of Immunity

The immune system becomes stronger as it develops antibodies to various diseases. Immunity can be broadly classified into two types – active immunity and passive immunity.

1. Active Immunity

The body develops antibodies to a disease when the infection occurs. This can be natural or from vaccines.

  • Natural Immunity: It is what the body develops when it is infected by the actual disease.
  • Vaccine-Induced Immunity: It is created by introducing a killed or weakened form of an infectious organism into the body.

2. Passive Immunity

When your baby is given antibodies rather than their own bodies producing it, it is passive immunity. This immunity is immediate but does not last long like active immunity.

  • A newborn derives passive immunity from the mother during pregnancy. The mother’s antibodies pass to the baby through the placenta.
  • Breastmilk is rich in antibodies and helps in improving the baby’s immune system.
  • Immunity is also derived from products that contain antibodies like immune globulin. These products are given to help the body fight specific diseases.

3. Innate Immunity

This is the inbuilt immunity that responds when there is a foreign invader in the body. Inflammation, mucus formation, sweat, secretions, etc.,  are a body’s natural mechanisms to fight day-to-day infections.

4. Adaptive Immunity

This is the immunity we develop as we get exposed to various factors around us. Babies develop this type of immunity as they get exposed to various infections. They adapt to colds, coughs, fevers, etc. Over a period of time, the immunity gets better because the body adapts to these infections and does not get affected much. This explains why young babies develop repeated viral fevers, which grown-up adults hardly do.

Development of a Newborn’s Immune System

Everyone is born with an immune system. A baby’s immune system is weak because it is immature. It has not been exposed to any bacteria, virus, or infections. As the baby gets used to the new environment, the body learns to adapt.

Every time a baby catches a cold or has a fever, the body produces antibodies to protect itself. The immune system starts working and develops only after birth. There is no need for the immune system to work within the womb as the fetus is in a sterile environment.

The immunity differs from baby to baby. This depends on the genetic makeup of the baby and the environmental exposures. The more exposure they have, the more are the antibodies produced, the body adapts, etc. If they are kept in a sterile environment at all times, the immunity does not get a chance to develop.

Babies Immune System and the Mother’s Antibodies

antibody passed from breastmilk

Antibodies are passed from the mother to the baby during pregnancy. This happens during the last trimester ( 6 – 9 months). The number of antibodies passed will differ from baby to baby. It depends on the mother too. The more antibodies a mother’s body has produced against different infections, the more the baby will get.

The mother will continue to transfer antibodies through breast milk too. The colostrum, which is thick and yellowish in colour, contains a lot of antibodies. This is the first milk produced by the mother before the fuller milk comes in. Newborn babies must be fed colostrum to strengthen their immunity.

Passive immunity acquired from mother’s antibodies for diseases like measles, rubella, and mumps will last up to a year. You will have to vaccinate your baby for the same, before or around the time they turn a year old.

Other general immunity will be temporary. It will last only up to 2 – 3 months after birth; the baby’s body will have to start producing antibodies after this.

[Read : Guide To Compulsory and Optional Vaccines For Babies]

Ways to Increase Immunity in Babies

baby expose to sunlight immunity boost

A baby’s immunity gets stronger as exposure increases. The more the immune system must fight off infections, the more are the antibodies produced. This, in turn, makes the immune system stronger. So, if you want to increase immunity in babies, don’t turn to foods. They do only part of the work. The majority of the work is done by exposure.

Here are some ideas to increase the exposure and improve immunity in small babies:

1. Sunlight

Babies need a lot of vitamin D after birth. They need to be out in the sun. This is why many doctors recommend taking the baby out into the early morning sun. Being out will help their bodies absorb all the nutrients present in the light.

2. Fresh Air

The lungs need to develop and learn to fight off airborne pathogens and other small infections in the atmosphere. Take the baby out for a walk every day. The more they breathe in the outside air, the better their lungs and body will be.

3. Exposure

Expose them to the outside world. Don’t keep them locked up in the house. You may be protecting them from various environmental microbes and infections. However, you will be negatively impacting their immune system.

Sometimes it is ok if your baby catches a cold or develops a cough. It is ok if they develop a fever. It is the body’s way of telling you that it is fighting something and making the immune system stronger. Do not panic when your infant has a fever.

Keeping them indoors or in a very sterile environment will not allow the body to learn how to cope up with the regular organisms present in the environment. The immune system does not get a chance to fight and improve.

[Read : The 3-Day Wait Rule For Babies To Introduce Solids]

Immunity-Boosting Foods Options For Babies

So, can you boost your baby’s immunity by feeding them fancy foods? Can you get them on a “healthy diet” and boost their immunity like adults lose weight? No, it is not that easy. Though there are many foods that can help in improving your child’s immunity, this cannot be the only course of action.

When it comes to babies, it is even more complicated. Babies are recommended to be strictly on a milk diet till they are six months old. It is then they are introduced to solid foods. Even then, the foods must be introduced slowly. You cannot overload them with immunity-building foods right from day one.

Here are some options you can include in your baby’s diet to strengthen their immunity over time:

1. Citrus Fruits

These are the most common foods preferred to increase immunity in babies. Citrus fruits are rich in Vitamin C. Vitamin C will not only help your baby get stronger against a cold but will increase white blood cells production.

Our bodies do not produce vitamin C and store it to help improve immunity. You must include foods rich in Vitamin C to ensure you get a sufficient amount. Increasing your Vitamin C intake is believed to help fight a cold faster and increase immunity in babies overall.

Some fruits you can include in your baby’s regular diet are:

  • Oranges
  • Lemons/ limes
  • Grapefruit

There are other fruits rich in vitamin C as well. However, these three are very common, and you can find them in most parts of the world.

Many doctors advise waiting till the baby turns 10 or 12 months old before you can add citrus to their regular diet. Check with your pediatrician before you start giving citrus fruits.

2. Peppers

bell pepper

Bell peppers contain a lot of vitamin C, almost three times what orange does. They are also rich in beta carotene, which is converted into vitamin A by the body. Vitamin A can improve your baby’s eyesight and skin.

The red peppers are better than the yellow or green varieties. The red peppers contain more beta carotene than the others.

These red peppers can do your baby a lot of good. You can give this sautéed or cooked after the baby gets a little older. Very young babies will not be able to chew them well.

3. Garlic

Yes, that pungent-smelling tiny cloves not only improve a new mother’s lactation but also boost a baby’s immunity. Garlic contains allicin which has a high concentration of Sulphur. This helps in fighting infections and slows down the hardening of the heart’s arteries.

You can add this to almost all foods. Also, you can use them as the main ingredient or add them to enhance the flavor. You can even add them to milk.

Babies may not like the sharp taste and strong smell at first. So, ensure you introduce it slowly and, if they reject it, try again after a few days. If your baby does not like the smell or taste of raw garlic, you can cook them well and add it to their food.

4. Broccoli

Broccoli - increase immunity in babies

This flower-shaped vegetable is rich in Vitamin A, C, and E. Broccoli is rich in minerals and fiber as well. The high content of antioxidants can help in reducing the free radicals present in the body, thus improving the immune system.

Babies may not like the texture or the colour at first but will start enjoying them eventually. Some babies may find this fun to hold and eat.

Ensure you do not overcook the broccoli as it will kill all the nutrients in them. Wash the broccoli well and steam it as big florets. You can give this to your baby from the time they start their solid food journey. They will find it comfortable to hold and eat too.

5. Spinach

Another green vegetable you can add to your baby’s plate. This leafy vegetable is rich in beta carotene and vitamin C. It is also a good source of antioxidants. All these together can improve your baby’s immunity and help their bodies fight off infections more effectively.

Again, this green vegetable should also not be cooked too much. It will lose all the nutrients. Steam it in an open kadai for best results. Cooking it covered might cause it to release some anti-nutrients which are not safe for babies.

[Read : Spinach For Babies]

6. Yogurt

yogurt

The most versatile and easiest food you can give your baby. This is perfect even when you are on the move and need some quick healthy snacks for your baby.

Yogurt is a rich source of probiotics, which is important for the health of the guts. Gut health is crucial for good immunity. Whatever your baby eats must be digested well for the body to be able to absorb all nutrients. If the gut is not well maintained, it can lead to many infections and health issues. If the gut is in good health, immunity will also be good.

7. Turmeric

This magical ingredient is added to almost all Indian dishes. It is rich in curcumin, which is responsible for the rich colour. It can help in boosting immunity, reducing inflammation in the body, and acts as an antiviral. This is why grandmas suggest drinking a glass of warm turmeric milk before bed when you have a cold or a sore throat.

8. Papaya

papaya

Another fruit rich in Vitamin C, papaya also, has anti-inflammatory properties. It also contains magnesium, potassium, and folate. Folate is essential for brain development.

Papayas are one of the first foods you can introduce to your baby. They are very healthy and easy to eat and digest too.

9. Kiwi

Another easy and tasty food option for a baby, kiwi, is rich in vitamin C and K. It is also rich in essential nutrients like folate and potassium. This fruit can help the baby’s white blood cells fight off infections better and improve overall health.

10. Almonds

almond

These nuts are rich in antioxidants. They can help in fighting the free radicals and improve the body’s immunity. Babies cannot eat nuts as such, and you must consult your doctor before you can start giving them nuts. Nuts may cause allergies in some babies. You can powder them and add them to almost any food you give your baby.

Remember, you need to give your baby a well-balanced diet. Just adding these foods to their regular diet will not suffice. Fresh home-cooked food is any day better than the best of the above-listed foods bought outside.

It is also not recommended to give outside food to babies. Their immune systems are just developing, and outside foods have the risk of bacterial infections. This risk is much higher in infants compared to older children.

Immune System in Premature Babies

Premature babies often have an underdeveloped immune system due to various internal and external factors. In this section, we spotlight the immune system in premature babies and how to improve it.

Who is a Premature Baby?

Premature birth is when a baby is born before the completion of 37 weeks in the womb. Once the 37 weeks are completed, it is termed as a full-term baby.

A premature baby is not very different from a full-term baby in many ways. The major difference, though, is their immune system. Premature babies have a very weak immune system as they were born before the immunity could develop.

Why does Premature Baby Have Weak Immune System?

As mentioned earlier, babies receive their antibodies from their mothers in the last trimester of pregnancy. In the case of preterm birth, the antibodies may not have been passed fully. As a result, the immune system of a premature baby is weaker than a full-term newborn.

This makes the baby very susceptible to multiple infections. This is why hospitals keep premature babies away from the regular rooms and crowds. They are isolated to protect them from the common infections we adults can carry.

As they reach 40 weeks and after the first set of vaccinations, the baby’s immunity gets better. This makes it safe for the baby to leave neonatal care and enter the regular world. However, one must remember that many babies will continue to have a weak immunity until they get a little older. Doctors might advise the parents to be careful and keep the baby safe from various infections and exposures.

Conclusion

A baby’s immune system is highly immature and under-developed at birth. There was no need to fight any infections in the womb, as it is essentially a sterile environment there. The immune system starts developing as the baby grows. Parents should facilitate this development by exposing the babies to various environmental factors.

When there is no exposure, there is no infection. When there is no infection, there is no need to produce antibodies, thus resulting in low immunity. It is in your – the parents’ hands to increase the baby’s immunity.

Read Also: Five Superfood You Should Consider For Your Baby

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Dr. Sagar Bhattad, MBBS, MD Pediatrics
DM - Pediatric Clinical Immunology and Rheumatology, Aster CMI Hospital
7 years of experience

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