This is our first year of school. Well, not my first year – I just added them up and I have spent 23 out of my 41 years in school. But it’s my son’s first year. JK (or maternelle since he’ll be going to a french school). And this is really his first year, since he didn’t go to preschool and was only in a home daycare two days a week for one year when he was two. So this is really uncharted territory for us. He is SO excited. He is so very ready for this. I am also excited. Maybe not SO excited, but I loved school and I think that he’s going to be a lot like me in this way. I am also nervous. For a lot of the usual reasons – are the other kids going to be kind, will he make friends, will he/we like his teacher? And some distinctly naturopathic ones. How will his immune system hold up to its first onslaught of school germs? When he sees how much cheese and yogurt all of the other kids get will be resent me?
A few weeks ago, I realized that it was time to start actively supporting his immune system. Now, I’m not naive enough to think that he will avoid getting sick – it’s good for kids to get sick a few times a year, it lets their immune systems practice being immune systems – but what I’m trying to avoid is the all-winter runny nose; the one-week low-grade fever (I like my fevers high and fast – get rid of those microbes) and the “I swear I don’t let my kid smoke” cough that can linger for weeks and sometimes months. I want my kid’s immune system to be like a ninja – strike fast, strike hard and be gone before you know it.
So, what make a healthy immune system?
- A healthy gut – identify and remove food sensitivities, support good gut flora with probiotics and/or probiotic foods (yogurt, sauerkraut, miso, pickles, etc…) and castor oil belly rubs. Over 70% of a child’s immune system is in her/his gut.
- A healthy diet – high in protein, fruits and vegetables. Nutrient dense foods are important for kids. Fruits and vegetables provide the vitamins, minerals, bioflavonoids, fibre and many more components of a healthy immune system. Foods high in vitamin C and beta-carotene – berries, citrus fruit, melons, carrots, sweet potato, squash, peppers and dark leafy greens – pack a powerful immune punch. Protein is also integral to a strong immune system. All of those antibodies floating around are made of protein. Meat, fish, eggs, beans, nuts and seeds, yogurt – for some kids these are a hard sell and parents have to be creative. Top this off with lots of healthy fats and some whole grains – voila, the diet of school yard champions.
- Adequate sleep – kids need a lot of sleep. Sleep is when they process what’s happened throughout the day; when their immune systems recharge and when their incredibly active bodies and minds get to… just… stop. Sleep is tricky in my house. My son has never slept as much as I think that he should. He falls asleep easily enough but is up at the crack of dawn (and he’s not one of those plays by himself in the morning kids, he wants to chat and eat – in that order). He occasionally still naps, but those hours usually just get tagged onto bedtime – no net gain. So, I make sure that the sleep that he does get is as good as it can be – in a dark room, not too hot (he’s a little furnace), and with a parent close by because that way he doesn’t wake up during the night. Also, if he asks for a snack before bed, I offer a protein and complex carb (nuts and fruit; toast and almond butter) to keep his blood sugar nice and even over night.
- Low stress/anxiety. Stress is incredibly toxic – for everyone, but especially kids. Managing anxious kids is an entire topic to itself but in this case, I’m talking about managing back to school stress. For little kids this can be talking about the changes that are coming; spending time at or around the school over the summer; practicing new morning routines; sharing fun memories of when you were in school. I know that a lot of parents carry great anxiety about their little ones starting school and I wonder how much of this just rubs off – “Mom is nervous about me starting school, there must be something to be nervous about”. I’ve even had to filter out a bunch of “First Day of School” books because I find that often the main character is scared and clinging to his/her mother. We talk about how exciting it is to start school this year. We talk about how we will drop him off and pick him up every day. We play in the school’s playground. I work very hard at keeping any anxiety out of my voice. I’m also planning “attachment bridges” – surprises in his lunch, notes/drawings in his book bag – to keep us connected during the day. I’m keeping it positive, but not blindly so. I check in with him to see if there are things that he is worried about – but I’m trying to let him voice those concerns free of my assumptions.
- The right supplements. I am using some herbs and vitamins to support my kids’ immune systems this year. Last year we went through a bunch of viruses at our house – so that’s what I’m working to balance against this year. For kids that get more bacterial infections, I might choose a few different options. There is no universal protocol for which supplements a child should take (or if they should take any) – it depends on their history, surroundings, diet, etc… Talk to your naturopathic doctor about finding the right balance for your little one.
- And one last tip. Teach your kids to wash their hands properly and often. Have them sing a song to make sure they are there long enough (Happy Birthday is about the right length), watch them – make sure they are getting between their fingers, the backs of their hands and their finger nails. Good hand washing technique substantially reduces transmission of common viruses.
I wish all the parents out there an easy transition back to school. May their lunch boxes come back empty and their minds full of wonder. I am looking forward to finding out what kind of student my son will be, what kind of friends he will choose and how many notes we’ll get about inappropriate language (my son may or may not have picked up my use of ‘freaking’ – he says “this is freaking awesome” a lot – among other things).
Happy September everyone!