While illnesses are a natural part of childhood – the immune system must learn to fight off infection – influenza can be a serious problem, doubly so during difficult seasons when vaccinations seem to be missing the mark. Fortunately, there are steps parents can take to try to protect kids and keep them as healthy as possible. None of these are foolproof and, yes, sick parents often bring the virus home. But a few simple habits can greatly improve a kid’s chances to avoid the flu.
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Flu Season and Kids
Arm your toddler’s immune system with everything it needs to protect itself from the flu and illness this winter,” recommends Dr. Tanya Altmann, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics and author of Baby and Toddler Basics. That means a flu vaccination for everyone in the family whose age and health allow it. That also means making sure kids get enough sleep and eat enough fresh fruits and vegetables for good nutrition. “If they’re run down and eating a lot of processed, junky foods, that’s already putting them behind the eight ball when they do get sick,” explains Altmann.
How to Keep Toddlers Safe During Flu Season
- Prime the Immune System – vaccination, good sleep, and good nutrition all help kids fight off flu infections.
- Wash Hands – influenza passes very effectively from skin-to-surface contact. Washing hands help disrupt it.
- Stay Home – can kids transmit germs before presenting symptoms? Yes. Does that mean it’s okay for them to go to daycare or preschool when they are sick? Nope.
- Know When It’s Time For The Doctor – parents need to observe their children and stay in contact with the doctor when things look concerning. That doesn’t necessarily mean rushing in – a phone call to the clinic can often solicit the information they need.
It can be hard to teach toddlers how to wash their hands regularly, although if parents make it entertaining enough, kids will take to it. No matter how they learn, handwashing is a habit they need to stick to during flu season, particularly when it comes to daycares or play dates. “You have to assume that every child your kid plays with is going to get sick the next day,” says Altmann. The flu is passed very effectively by hands and mouths picking up germs from toys and surfaces, so parents should make sure they are cleaned and disinfected frequently. A solid rule of thumb for handwashing is to wash after bathroom use, after playtime, and before snacks and meals.
If flu symptoms do appear, there are a few things parents can do to help make kids as comfortable as possible. First, keep them home. Sure, some playmates or classmates have already been exposed, but that doesn’t mean families should be cavalier with spreading their germs. There’s more than one kind of flu, and more than one kind of bug to catch during winter, anyway, so that’s another reason to keep sick kids home. It also allows them to get the care and attention they need – extra fluids, good nutrition, foods rich in vitamins C and D, and probiotics if necessary. The efficacy of some of these practices may be in question, but they don’t hurt.
Another advantage to keeping sick kids home with a parent or primary caregiver is observation. The flu may seem like it isn’t a big deal, but it can be. Parents may be willing to let it ride out, but when certain symptoms present themselves, a pediatrician needs to be contacted. If a child has difficulty breathing, high fever, vomiting, won’t drink, and isn’t urinating, it’s worth contacting a pediatrician. That doesn’t mean scrambling to a walk-in clinic – often a simple phone call or email to the clinic can result in some useful information. And if a visit is necessary, the clinic has some idea of the child’s condition.
“Kids will get sick and that’s okay – it’s teaching their immune system how to fight infections,” says Altmann. “But it’s important to know when it’s just a little runny nose and cough that will run its course, and when it’s something more serious and you need to see your pediatrician.”