How can I keep my baby from getting sick this winter?
Good question, since as sure as the mercury drops, cold and flu viruses make the rounds through homes and daycare facilities each year. If only there were a way to guarantee that your baby won’t get sick. Is there?
“Not really,” says Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Many common winter viruses are airborne, so if your baby takes a breath within, say, 4 to 6 feet of someone who’s sick, he can easily catch the bug himself.
What’s more, most people stricken by winter viruses are contagious before they develop symptoms. So pulling your baby away from a sniffling, coughing, or sneezing pal doesn’t guarantee that he won’t come down with similar symptoms himself.
Neither will bundling him up: Studies have shown that exposure to cold or damp weather doesn’t increase a child’s likelihood of catching a cold, says Offit.
Still, don’t give up without a fight. There are several simple steps you can take to help fend off germs and keep your baby as healthy as possible this winter.
So what should I do?
While it’s practically inevitable that your baby will get a few colds this winter no matter what you do, it won’t hurt to try these germ-fighting strategies:
Wash his hands — and yours.
Regular hand washing is the simplest, most effective way to get rid of cold and flu germs. So wash your hands after you change your baby’s diaper and wipe his runny nose, as well as before preparing food.
Wash your baby’s hands frequently, too — especially before eating (once he’s eating solids) and when he comes home from daycare or an outing.
Also be diligent about hand washing for siblings, especially if they’re sick as well. No need to pay extra for fancy antibacterial soaps — any soap will remove germs from the skin’s surface.
Make sure all of your baby’s caregivers are vigilant about hand washing, too. If your baby’s in daycare, ask what the official hand-washing policy is. If it’s less than satisfactory, don’t be shy about requesting a change and reminding caregivers that this protects their health as well.
If your child’s in daycare, check into the “sick-kid” policy.
Make sure your child’s daycare center has a reasonable policy on keeping sick kids away from healthy ones. Many facilities require a child with a fever, the flu, vomiting, diarrhea, or an eye infection to stay home until these symptoms subside.
If you often notice obviously sick kids at your baby’s daycare, it’s probably time to chat with the caregiver or director about enforcing the rules on sick kids more stringently. (Of course, these kids were contagious before their symptoms showed up, but you still don’t want them sneezing or coughing around your baby.)
Get your baby vaccinated.
You can help protect your child from some viruses and bacteria simply by making sure his vaccinations are up to date and that he gets a yearly flu shot once he’s 6 months old.
Do what you can to boost your baby’s immunity naturally.
To provide your baby with optimum immunity, breastfeed him if you can. Once he’s eating solids, make sure he gets all the nourishment he needs by offering him a variety of healthy foods. Create a schedule that will help him get plenty of sleep each night as well as lots of physical activity every day.
What to do when your baby gets sick
Since children average eight to ten colds a year, it’s a good bet that your baby will bring home a few bugs this winter — no matter how hard you try to prevent it. When that happens, the best you can do is make him comfortable until the virus works its way out of his system. A few tips:
Try saline nose drops.
Saline drops help to thin and clear nasal mucus and relieve congestion. For best results, try using a bulb syringe: If your baby will let you, tilt his head back slightly, then gently squeeze the bulb to deposit the saline drops in his nose. Next, use the bulb to remove the mucus. Repeat this process several times a day.
Make sure your baby gets enough rest.
While this may be easier said than done, the more rest your baby gets, the sooner he’ll feel better. Encourage a siesta or two each day. When your baby’s not resting in his crib, find some quiet activities to share — read to him, watch a video with him, or play with puppets together.
Hook up the humidifier.
This is especially important at night and during naps, when a persistent cough or difficulty breathing can prevent your baby from getting the rest he needs. The moist air from a humidifier or vaporizer will thin your baby’s mucous secretions, helping to calm his cough and relieve congestion.
Urge your baby to drink up.
Children lose body fluids quickly when they’re sick — especially if they’re running a fever or have diarrhea. To replenish these fluids, breastfeed or formula feed your baby often. If you think he may be getting dehydrated, give him a little bit of water, too, or an electrolyte solution if he’s 4 months or older.
Once your baby’s eating solids, offer him extra-juicy fruit (such as watermelon or oranges), diluted juice, or even a frozen juice pop.
Know when to call the doctor.
While most winter viruses clear up on their own within several days, some can turn into more serious conditions that require prompt treatment.
Call the doctor if your baby is pulling on his ear (which can signal an ear infection); is wheezing or has trouble breathing (bronchial infection or pneumonia); or has diarrhea or vomiting, which can lead to dangerous dehydration.
Also call the doctor if your baby is younger than 3 months and has a temperature of 100.4 degrees F (38 degrees C) or higher. A baby this young needs to be checked for serious infection or disease.
If your baby is at least 3 months old, ask your doctor what her guidelines are for calling in. She may suggest that you call if your baby is between 3 and 6 months old and his temperature reaches 101 degrees F (38.3 degrees C) or higher, or if your baby is over 6 months and his fever reaches 103 degrees F (39.4 degrees C) or higher.
Make time to snuggle.
When kids are feeling under the weather, they need a little extra TLC. So in addition to keeping a constant watch on your baby’s temperature, make time to simply snuggle.
Keep it all in perspective.
When you’re taking care of a sick, miserable baby, try to remember that most winter illnesses pass in a week or so — and all of them will ultimately help strengthen your child’s immune system.
As your baby gets older and builds up immunity to viruses, including many of the 200 that cause the common cold, he’ll log fewer and fewer sick days. In the meantime, keep up the hand washing — and stock up on tissues.