The best offense is a good defense. It's a saying that holds as true for football as it does for cold and flu season. But fending off colds doesn't just mean reminding your kids to wash their hands."How much you sleep, what you eat and how you spend your free time all play a role in having a strong immune system," says Dr. Alan Greene, a clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine and an attending pediatrician at Packard Children's Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif. Follow this eight-step plan to keep your little ones -- and you -- healthy, happy and sniffle-free.
Scale back on sweets.
According to the American Heart Association, the average American gets about 22 teaspoons of added sugar in one day -- more than three times the amount the organization recommends. Not only can an excess of the sweet stuff pave the way for weight gain, but it can also wear down the immune system."Refined sugar causes blood sugar spikes, which compromise white blood cells, the body's first line of defense against colds," says Greene. To scale back, swap out your kid's soda for water and offer fruit instead of candy. The American Heart Association advises that children ages 4 to 8 who get about 1,600 calories a day should limit their sugar intake to 3 teaspoons -- or 12 grams -- a day.
Clear the air.
Here's another reason to protect your child from secondhand smoke and chemical-based household cleaners:"These pollutants damage cilia, the tiny hairs in your nose that help block viruses," says Greene. Declare your home and car smoke-free zones, and use gentler cleaners -- or save the serious scrubbing for the times your kid's in day care or on a playdate.
Let 'em laugh.
When life gets hectic, it's sometimes simpler to rush through your day without cracking a smile. But taking time to have fun and giggle with your family is crucial for your well-being. In fact, research from Japan's Osaka University Graduate School of Medicine found that watching funny movies boosts the production of the body's natural cold- and flu-killing cells. Try having a tickle-fest, or pop in a chuckle-worthy DVD.
Serve some bacteria.
The good kind, that is! “Probiotics strengthen the immune system," says Greene."The trick is giving your child enough of these friendly bacteria." He recommends looking for a product with 5 to 10 billion units from more than one strain of probiotics, such as a combination of lactobacillus and bifidus regularis. Most yogurts contain 1 billion units per serving, so consider stocking up on fortified juices too.
Too much tension can trigger the release of cortisol, a stress hormone that dampens your body's defenses, says Greene. Of course, it's impossible to rid your child's life of all stresses, but teaching him coping techniques can help him better deal with them. The next time he seems anxious, have him lie down with one hand on his tummy. Ask him to take deep breath; his stomach should push against his hand when he inhales and move away when he exhales. Eventually, he'll learn to take these "belly breaths" when he's feeling frustrated.
Freezing outside? Resist the temptation to camp out in front of the television. Staying active provides a number of healthy benefits, including a stronger immune system. According to a recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, people who worked out five days a week came down with 46-percent fewer colds than their couch-potato counterparts. So bundle up and go on a family walk or create an indoor obstacle course.
Have a set bedtime.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that people who logged more quality shut-eye were five times less likely to get a cold than those who tended to toss and turn. Experts recommend that children younger than 12 should log 10 hours of sleep a night, one- to three-year-olds should get 12 to 14 hours, and those younger than 1 need 14 to 15 hours. To help put your little one -- and colds -- to bed, create an evening ritual that signals it's time for sleep, like reading a favorite book or doing a few easy stretches.