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4 Rules Healthy Babies Live By

As important as it is to know how to care for your baby when she's sick, it's equally important to keep her from becoming ill in the first place. When babies are under the weather they divert a lot of energy into healing instead of growing. Here are some simple things you can do to strengthen your little one's immune system.

See the Doc

I advise my patients to schedule regular well-baby exams, usually every two months through age 6 months and every three months until age 2. This allows your pediatrician to regularly monitor your baby's health and development, and to nip any illnesses in the bud. It also gives you the chance to ask questions, alert your doctor to any concerns and learn how to become an active partner in keeping your tot as healthy as he can be.

I believe that staying on top of immunizations is an essential part of illness prevention. Vaccines are often at the center of controversy, causing some parents to worry about their safety. But recent research has disproven an earlier reported autism-vaccine link, and I believe this should no longer be a concern. (The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees.) In fact, I've seen potentially serious ailments such as whooping cough and measles become much rarer because of immunizations. Follow the schedule of vaccinations and well-baby checkups as advised by your doctor and the AAP (aap.org), and if you have questions, don't hesitate to talk to your pediatrician.

Keep it Clean

Your baby can pick up and spread germs all kinds of ways -- handling toys, holding germy hands, rubbing her nose, gumming whatever objects she comes across -- so it's important to keep her environment clean.

Caregivers should wash their hands frequently, especially after handling food, changing a diaper, petting animals or touching a sick person. Have older siblings, caregivers and other adults wash up frequently and thoroughly, especially before handling or holding your newborn or infant. Start early, teaching your child to wash her own hands with soap and water before meals.

Help keep your baby's sensitive breathing passages healthy by dusting her bedroom as often as possible. Clean the nursery regularly, and minimize stuffed animals and fuzzy toys that can trap and collect dust (though a couple of loveys is perfectly fine). Bar the cats and dogs from her sleeping environment too, and consider investing in an air purifier with a HEPA filter, especially for preemies and infants with respiratory problems such as asthma, or if your baby has a cold or cough.

If your child is in day or group care, you'll find that one of the first things kids "share" is infections. To reduce the chances of your baby's getting sick, ask about sanitation and sick-child policies. Do caregivers wash their hands after changing diapers, maintain separate diapering and food-serving areas, sanitize the toys on a regular basis, and discourage sharing of bottles, pacifiers and other personal items? What are the restrictions on admitting sick children? Is there a separate area for children who get sick on site to wait until their parents pick them up? The AAP recommends you keep your child home if she has a fever, if she isn't well enough to participate in class, or if you think she may be contagious.

Feed Him Right

Proper nutrition is a surefire way to boost baby's immune system, plus it helps him grow strong and develop healthy eating habits later in life.

The best food for babies is breast milk, hands down. I consider it to be baby's first immunization: Each drop of milk is packed with white blood cells, antibodies and many other infection fighters, as well immunoglobulin A, a protein that acts like a protective coating for your baby's intestinal lining, helping to prevent bacteria and viruses from entering his bloodstream. If you're formula-feeding, choose a brand fortified with DHA and ARA, essential fatty acids that work together and help make formula closer in composition to mother's milk.

Once your little one moves on to solids, offer plenty of plant foods rich in immunity-building phytonutrients. Phytos give fruits and vegetables their orange, red, green, purple and yellow colors, so the darker the color of the food, the more phytos in it. A few key examples include avocados, lentils, papayas, squash, sweet potatoes, sweet red peppers and tomatoes, all cut in small bite-size pieces. Carrots and broccoli cooked until soft are also good options.

Fruits and veggies are very healthy and low in calories, but babies also need protein and fat to thrive. The omega-3 fats found in salmon boost the ability of white cells to destroy the germs that cause illness, so after baby turns 1, I recommend giving him 1 or 2 ounces of the fish once a week. The friendly live bacteria in yogurt help fight illness-causing bacteria inside baby's digestive system, preventing diarrhea and other tummy troubles. Yogurt and foods such as avocado and baby cereal also provide baby with the protein needed to build muscle, bone and tissue.

One of my favorite baby health foods is flaxseed oil. Not only is it fabulous for boosting immunity, but adding a couple teaspoons to baby's cereal or a toddler's fruit-and-yogurt smoothie is a great way to sneak extra healthy calories into a picky eater.

Just as the aforementioned foods boost baby's immune system, sugar-loaded snacks and beverages can break it down. Besides causing cavities and raising the risk of obesity, excess sugar depresses the immune system. Limit sweets to an occasional treat, especially when he's ill.

Stamp Out Stress

Just as stress causes adults to become sick more frequently, it can affect babies' health too. Being a tiny tot can be tough -- all that growing and learning! -- and the daily stresses of hunger, discomfort, overstimulation, etc., may take a toll on her immune system.

Your baby can't always be happy and comfortable, but do your best to create a calm environment. Read her cues to learn what soothes her and what doesn't -- especially in those first few months, as baby is adjusting to her new world. Try playing soft classical music, let her have a security blanket or toy, make sure the room temperature isn't too hot or cold, and don't allow cooing older siblings and admiring adults to stimulate her past her breaking point.

When she does get upset, respond to her needs. Crying is stressful no matter how old you are, and at this young age, your baby needs to trust that you're there for her when she needs you. Babies younger than 6 months who are routinely left to "cry it out" will produce higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which attacks the immune system. Plus, the cause of the crying (hunger, a wet diaper, etc.), if not addressed, will lead to more stress.

In general, I recommend that parents hug, hold and touch baby -- a lot. I've found in my 40 years of experience that babies who are carried a lot by responsive parents tend to become sick less often. And research has shown that when babies are physically apart from a caregiver for an extended period of time, their stress levels rise. So go ahead, give in to that natural urge to cuddle your little one as much as you like. It's good for her -- and it'll do wonders for you too.

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