Foods such as bananas are rich in prebiotics Image Credit: Shutterstock

The holidays are over and so is the fun as children across the UAE prepare to head back to school for a new term, often after an enjoyable vacation abroad. 

However, even as the requisite school uniforms, books and equipment are getting sorted, parents ought to ensure renewed focus on their offspring’s health, advise medical experts.

The sudden change in environment and return to the heat and humidity can shock the immune system, usually resulting in many children falling sick during the first few weeks of the academic year. But there are precautions you can take, some that may even be surprising.
“It’s a simple fact that kids get sick a lot when they’re young, be it a cold, ear infections, bouts of diarrhoea or other common illnesses,” says Rachael Buck, PhD, a discovery scientist and immunology expert at Abbott Laboratories in Dubai. “On top of that, some also have allergies, asthma and eczema. 

“However, one of the best kept secrets in preventing illness and boosting the immune system can be found in the gut — or more specifically the gut microbiome. The microbiome is an enormous collection of about 100 trillion microbes, or microscopic organisms that live on and in your body, and most of them are found in the gastrointestinal tract, known simply as the gut. 

“Bacteria are a class of microbes that are found in the gut, and some types of bacteria that are harmful can lead to infections and diseases while others are healthy and helpful in boosting immunity, improving digestion and more. When there is a balance between these healthy and harmful bacteria, your child’s immune system is better prepared.” 

Guts for glory

One of the best things you can do to help your child’s immune system develop and stay healthy is to optimise their gut health, and Buck says these three tips should help: Firstly, choose fruits and vegetables such as bananas and asparagus for your child that are rich in prebiotics; let your child get dirty by playing outdoors as it will help them get a dose of healthy bacteria; and finally, get them moving more as exercise may also diversify your child’s gut microbes, according to recent studies.

While playing outside could be good for the gut, general cleanliness is still important for health, so reminding youngsters of good daily hygiene habits is crucial, says Dr Sarah Rizk, a paediatrician at Dubai’s Shamma Clinic. 

“With new faces and new environments, germs are bound to be lurking in classrooms,” she explains. “To help kids avoid getting sick and prevent them from bringing germs home, it is important to show them how to keep up their hygiene. 

“Teach them to wash their hands after using the restroom and before going to lunch or eating a snack. It may be smart to provide children with on-the-go hand sanitiser to use when washing their hands isn’t convenient.” 

Dental hygiene is also important, stresses Dr Nancy Barbar, Chief Paediatric Dentist, Snö Dental Clinics. “If left untreated many dental caries such as tooth decay and cavities can lead to sickness and absence from school,” she says. “A thorough check-up can take all these worries away and get children back into good oral hygiene routines, such as regular toothbrushing and flossing.” 

Experts also advise that the whole family should get vaccinated as early as possible prior to the start of the school year, and recommend speaking to a registered paediatrician to confirm the vaccinations parents and each child must have. At the same time, an annual flu vaccine for everyone six months of age and older is worth considering.

Protein power 

When it comes to eating right for optimum health in the new school year, Jennifer Williams, a nutrition research scientist based in Dubai, says protein is of huge importance.

“The [US-based] National Academies of Science recommends children take in 13-34g of protein daily, yet studies show one in seven school-aged kids don’t get enough protein,” she explains. 

“That number is not too shocking when you learn that 30 per cent of a child’s total daily calories come from low-nutrient foods such as snacks, desserts and candy. If your child is not getting enough protein, it can lead to more serious side effects down the road. As a matter of fact, this essential macronutrient is so important for kids that it affects every single part of the body.”

“Protein provides important essential amino acids that contribute to the mental and physical health of your child. Without enough protein in their diet, your kid may experience the symptoms below in the chart: fatigue, lack of concentration, slowed growth, lowered immunity and more. Meeting daily protein intake goals is an essential part of child growth and development. When kids get the nutrition they need, they’re in the best position to begin long, healthy lives.”

To make sure your child is getting enough protein, she suggests parents get familiar with the minimum daily protein recommendations for their child’s age and be aware of the signs and symptoms of protein deficiencies.