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Boost sleep time. Studies of adults show that sleep deprivation can make you more susceptible to illness by reducing natural killer cells, immune-system weapons that attack microbes and cancer cells. The same holds true for children, says Kathi Kemper, M.D., director of the Center for Holistic Pediatric Education and Research at Children's Hospital, in Boston. Children in day care are particularly at risk for sleep deprivation because all the activity can make it difficult for them to nap. How much sleep do kids need? A newborn may need up to 18 hours of cribtime a day, toddlers require 12 to 13 hours, and preschoolers need about 10 hours. "If your child can't or won't take naps during the day, try to put her to bed earlier," says Dr. Kemper.
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Guard against germ spread. Fighting germs doesn't technically boost immunity, but it's a great way to reduce stress on your child's immune system. Make sure your kids wash their hands often -- and with soap. You should pay particular attention to their hygiene before and after each meal and after playing outside, handling pets, blowing their nose, using the bathroom, and arriving home from day care. When you're out, carry disposable wipes with you for quick cleanups. To help kids get into the hand-washing habit at home, let them pick out their own brightly colored hand towels and soap in fun shapes, colors, and scents.
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Exercise as a family. Research shows that exercise increases the number of natural killer cells in adults -- and regular activity can benefit kids in the same way, says Ranjit Chandra, M.D., a pediatric immunologist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. To get your children into a lifelong fitness habit, be a good role model. "Exercise with them rather than just urge them to go outside and play," says Renee Stucky, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Missouri Medical School. Fun family activities include bike riding, hiking, in-line skating, basketball, and tennis.
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Breast-feed your baby. Breast milk contains turbo-charged immunity-enhancing antibodies and white blood cells. Nursing guards against ear infections, allergies, diarrhea, pneumonia, meningitis, urinary-tract infections, and sudden infant death syndrome. Studies show that it may also enhance your baby's brain power and help protect her against insulin-dependent diabetes, Crohn's disease, colitis, and certain forms of cancer later in life. Colostrum, the thin yellow "premilk" that flows from the breasts during the first few days after birth, is especially rich in disease-fighting antibodies, says Dr. Shubin. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that moms breast-feed for a year. If this commitment isn't realistic, aim to breast-feed for at least the first two to three months in order to supplement the immunity your baby received in utero.
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