This blog is in partnership and sponsored by Nutricia.
If you have a young child you know that it’s nearly impossible to keep them from touching, smelling and licking nearly everything they come into contact with. But as parents, we know that’s not a very healthy thing to do. Yet, we’re less often aware of the impact of psychological and mental ‘immunity’ and the impact this plays on our child’s health and wellbeing.
Having good mental health is key to the healthy development of every child. Kids need good mental health to deal with challenges and adapt to change, and so they can feel good about themselves, build strong relationships with others and live a happy and ‘healthy’ life, immune from the multitude of things that can undermine health.
The key to both physical and mental wellbeing is a healthy immune system – sometimes called resilience. And as parents, we can boost this immune system by supporting lifestyle factors that can build both physical immunity and psychological resilience to and ensure our kids live their best lives.
What is Immunity?
Physically, the immune response is our body’s way of protecting ourselves against infections or toxins. Having good immunity leads to better health and wellness because the body has learned how to respond and fight pathogens, and how to help heal you when you do get sick.
Psychological immunity – or resilience – works that way with challenging times. It’s impossible to avoid difficult experiences like sadness or loneliness (and we really don’t want to!), but resilient kids are better able to cope with those challenges when they arrive.
Of course physical health and mental health are tied together. Good physical health leads to better mental health and even better brain development. It also increases a child’s ability to make friends and build supportive social networks simply because kids who feel better are better able to engage with those around them.
So, what can you do to boost your child’s immunity and resilience and give them better health and wellbeing?
Focus on Sleep
Studies show that not getting enough sleep can negatively affect our children’s physical, social, emotional and cognitive outcomes. These are things like poor concentration, impaired learning, and an increased risk for obesity, depression and injuries. It also leads to behavioural problems.
Over the last 15 years, research has also showed strong evidence that sleep enhances immune defence. This is in line with the popular wisdom that ‘sleep helps healing’. In fact, sleep is when your child’s body learns and adapts to the external factors that help them to develop a robust immune response. In other words, when your child is asleep their body is spending that time busily figuring out all the germs and toxins they’ve encountered that day, and teaching itself how to fight them. That means the better they sleep, the stronger their immune system is.
Poor sleep habits also affect mental health. In the long term, inadequate sleep increases the risks for depression, anxiety and burn out. The relationship between sleep and mental health is not completely understood. But studies suggest that a good night’s sleep helps foster both mental and emotional resilience, while chronic sleep deprivation increases negative thinking and emotional vulnerability.
The amount of sleep your child needs depends on their age. An infant might need up to 16 hours of sleep a day (usually at two or three different times), while a toddler may need closer to 11 to 14. But helping them get the sleep they need lets their immune system thrive and protects them against the dangers of sleep deprivation that can make them more susceptible to illness and behavioural problems.
Minimise Stress and Anxiety
As much as we’d like to think otherwise, adverse childhood experiences can cast long shadows into our children’s lives. And part of that is an ongoing effect on mental and physical health and immunity.
Stress and anxiety have long been understood to affect us physically. When our kids are stressed, or when they’re suffering from anxiety, their bodies’ ability to fight off antigens is reduced and they’re much more likely to get sick. Put simply, stress weakens the immune system.
Anxiety and stress can also result in physical symptoms such as sleeplessness, diarrhoea, stomach aches and headaches. And it can make kids feel irritable, overtired and have difficulty concentrating. They even struggle to sleep!
You can help minimise stress and anxiety by teaching your little ones to face their fears, and not run away from them. For toddlers, this might be watching a bee on a flower, or crossing the rickety bridge at the playground. You can also teach them that it’s OK to make mistakes. When you make your own mistakes, let them know it’s no big deal. And handle their mistakes the same way.
Foster Acceptance and Connection
Building resilience is better than anything else that we can do for our children. When our children are resilient they build immunity against the psychological stressors in the world. These are social and physical circumstances that challenge our child’s ability to cope in the world. Resilience is the answer to those challenges. And we can help them develop this resilience by building a strong relationship with our children.
Building a strong relationship with your sometimes tumultuous toddler is easier than you think. After all, to our kids, love is spelled T.I.M.E. Spending one-on-one time with your kids helps them develop coping skills within the context of caring relationships. When kids know they have the unconditional support of a parent they feel able to try to work through difficult situations and learn how to ask for help when they need it. And these interactions let parents model coping and problem-solving skills to children.
The first step is to just get down to their level. Sit down on the floor and play what they want to play. Maybe it’s building with blocks. Maybe it’s imagining you’re Ana to their Elsa (yep, even dad sometimes). But getting down and engaging with your child where they are is the key to building strong connections. And they’ll love you for it!
Build Social Support
Anyone with a toddler knows that they aren’t great with social skills. And that’s OK! They’re just too young to know how to share, or how to negotiate or how to take someone else’s feelings or needs into consideration. They pretty much just want to be with people who want to do what they want to do.
As a parent, you likely recognise your importance to your child. But it goes much deeper than just emotional. In fact, research shows that parenting is the single largest variable in childhood illnesses and accidents.
It’s still really important and good for them to spend social time with others. But, without a doubt, the most important social experience that they’ll have as young children is with you – their parents. By giving this support and love your child will be more healthy and more resilient.
Building your child’s resilience and confidence is just as important as building their physical immunity. Parent’s Corner can help you navigate parenting from the first few weeks of your little one’s life, to first steps, to first friendships (and beyond) including tools, tips and strategies for developing immunity and resilience.
Being a parent to your little one is an important, and fantastic job – but you don’t have to go it alone. Parent’s Corner was created with you in mind and is there to help you be the best parent you can be.