When to call the doctor
Pediatricians expect to hear from new parents, so never hesitate to call any time you suspect your child is ill or just doesn’t seem “right” to you. Call the doctor right away if your baby has any of the following signs of infection:
- excessive drowsiness, lethargy or is unusually difficult to rouse
- decreased or elevated body temperature
- extreme floppiness or jitters
- persistent or inconsolable crying
- poor feeding
- difficulty breathing
- repeated loose or watery stools
- eye discharge
- unusual skin rash or change in skin color
- white patches in the mouth or throat
The day a newborn baby comes home from the hospital is a happy one, yet it can be tinged with feelings of apprehension. During your hospital stay, you had the comfort of knowing healthcare providers were keeping watch over your baby around-the-clock. Upon discharge, though, you may worry, “What if my baby gets sick?”
According to Oktibbeha County Hospital Maternal/Child Supervisor Karen Tiffin, RNC, although newborns do get some immunity from their mothers, they are particularly vulnerable to certain illnesses because their immune systems are still immature and not strong enough to fight off bacteria, viruses and parasites that cause infection. “Illnesses like pneumonia, meningitis and sepsis can quickly overwhelm a tiny newborn,” Tiffin says. “Because newborns’ bodies and organs are growing and developing rapidly, serious infections can lead to complications like growth and development problems, brain damage, heart disease, hearing loss, vision loss and death. Preterm babies face even greater risk, and preventing these infections plus diagnosing and treating them early (which may require readmission to the hospital) are key to keeping these littlest ones healthy for more birthdays to come.”
Have a healthy pregnancy
The maternal/child expert notes that many newborn infections are transmitted from mother to baby during pregnancy or delivery. “Babies can contract rubella, chicken pox, HIV, syphilis, toxoplasmosis and cytomegalovirus—the most common cause of congenital hearing loss—from their mothers. A baby can contract listeriosis, a common type of food poisoning, and Group B Streptococcus (GBS), which can cause meningitis, pneumonia and/or sepsis, in utero, during delivery or later from his or her environment,” she says, adding that other organisms, like the fungus Candida, which causes diaper rash and thrush, and the bacterium E. coli, are found in everyone’s bodies, and babies typically pick these up during delivery. “Some infections cause mild or no symptoms in the mother but can have debilitating effects on her unborn baby.”
Tiffin urges women who are planning to have a baby to check their immunization status. “Get the vaccinations you need and address any health problems before becoming pregnant,” she says. To protect yourself and your baby while pregnant, Tiffin offers the following advice:
- Seek good prenatal care. Maternal screenings and prompt diagnosis and treatment can prevent some infections, such as listeriosis and HIV, from harming your baby. Up to 25 percent of pregnant women carry GBS, which usually causes no symptoms but may lead to critical illness in newborns. Doctors routinely test pregnant women for GBS late in the third trimester. If you carry GBS, receiving intravenous antibiotics during labor can protect your baby. In addition, placing antibiotic drops or ointment in a newborn’s eyes can prevent conjunctivitis caused by gonorrhea bacteria.
- Thoroughly wash and cook all your food. Heat all deli meats to steaming hot and avoid soft cheeses and unpasteurized juice, cider and dairy.
- Wash your hands regularly. Wash your hands before and after eating and preparing food, after coming in contact with body fluids and waste and after using the bathroom. Antibacterial alcohol-based hand rubs are also effective against most germs.
- Avoid all contact with animal waste. Assign someone else to clean the cat’s litter box.
Healthy at home
Once your baby is home, Tiffin suggests practicing the following baby-care measures—they’ll go a long way toward keeping your newborn healthy:
- Breastfeed your baby. Breast milk contains antibodies and enzymes that protect your baby from bacteria and viruses. Colostrum, the thick, rich, golden-colored early milk you produce for the first several days after delivery, contains more protein, salt, antibodies and other protective components than the mature milk that gradually replaces it. Plan to breastfeed exclusively—no water, juice or nonhuman milk or food—for at least six months. Seek help and support from your baby’s doctor or nurse or a lactation consultant to initiate breastfeeding and any time you encounter a problem nursing.
- Allow clean hands only. Make sure that everyone (grandparents, too!) washes his or her hands before touching the baby.
- Avoid germ-ridden places. Keep your baby away from crowds or ill people. Kindly ask friends and family members to postpone a visit if they or their children are under the weather. Ask whether your pediatrician has a separate exam or waiting room for healthy children.
- Vaccinate. Stick to the advised schedule of inoculations and newborn checkups, at least two visits in the first month. Your baby likely received the first dose of hepatitis B vaccine shortly after birth. Doses of as many as six vaccines will be given at the two-month checkup.
- Make your home smoke free. Quit smoking, don’t allow others to smoke near your baby and dine only at smoke-free restaurants.
Tiffin says, “As your baby grows and develops stronger immunity, he or she will become better able to resist infections that cause serious illness.”