Keeping Your Premature Baby Healthy Around Crowds
All new mothers worry about risks to their newborns. I spent the first few months of my firstborn’s life obsessively scouring the countertops with bleach after cooking meals, in case raw chicken juice had contaminated the tiles, and researching “BPA in Bottles” as though I were a scientist writing a thesis.
Parents of premature newborns face even more worries about their baby’s health. Due to immature immune systems that haven’t completely developed, preemies have an increased risk of catching viruses that may be nothing more than a nuisance for us, but can be potentially life threatening to them. Some of these risks can be avoided by understanding when it’s safe to head out with your baby or invite visitors over, and when it’s best to stay inside and away from the crowds.
New York Pediatrician Cheryl Wu says, in most cases, preemies aren’t discharged from NICU until they are a certain weight and can feed well on their own. “They are usually at a certain gestational age when they leave the hospital,” which is about one month before their original due date. She is quick to add, “Preemies are at a more increased risk from infections than full-term babies.” So while you may feel that taking your baby home gives you the green light to head out to the grocery store, or drop in on a large family gathering to show off your beautiful new gem, be cautious.
Dr. Stephen E. Welty, Chief of Neonatology and Head of the Newborn Center at Texas Children’s Hospital, says viral illnesses are a top concern with premature infants. “The first winter is tough,” he says, because preemies that develop respiratory tract infections do so with smaller airways. For this reason, preemies are more prone to respiratory disease.
The problem with some viral illnesses is a child can be exposed by someone who isn’t yet showing symptoms of being sick. For that reason, says Wu, “Unless absolutely necessary, don’t bring (preemies) to large crowds, especially in the winter time when lots of viruses (including RSV) are passed around in crowded indoor spaces.” After the first winter, Dr. Welty says, the concerns surrounding viral illnesses in premature infants lessen dramatically.
In addition to avoiding crowds, Wu says parents of preemies should follow vaccination schedules set by the AAP. When getting your premature infant vaccinated, do so at the baby’s chronological age, not the corrected date. “So the first set of vaccines should be given two months after their birth date, not two months after their due date,” she explains. If your baby qualifies, you might also consider getting the RSV shot, or Synagis, during the winter months; talk to your pediatrician for more information.
If you can’t keep your well-meaning, yet stubborn, relatives at bay, follow these precautions during visits:
- Limit exposure time. Explain your concerns prior to the visit if you can, and set a time – say, ten minutes – for the family to drop in and ogle at your newborn.
- Limit contact. While friends and relatives may think you’re being picky, if you limit the number of hands touching your baby, you limit the potential for illness. If you can hold baby and have relatives sit around and look, even better.
- Wash, wash, wash. Ask everyone who holds baby to wash their hands with warm water and soap. Keep antibacterial lotion close at hand, too. If someone refuses to clean up first, ask that they refrain from touching your baby.
- Keep your baby out of crowded spaces, especially in the winter. If you need to Christmas shop, have someone watch your baby at home. Can’t get to the grocery store without taking her? Put her in the stroller and cover the seating area with a blanket. But to lessen the risk the most, let your baby remain at home while you run out and get things done.