Keeping your premature baby healthy is one of a preemie parent's most important jobs. Because they were born early, premature babies have immature immune systems and get sick more easily than babies born at term. Cold and flu season can be dangerous for premature babies, especially during the first year of life.
Although preemies get sick more often than other children, parents can follow a few simple steps to keep their baby healthy.
Read More: Is My Baby Sick?
Wash Hands Often
Washing your hands is the best and most important way to keep your premature baby healthy. Hand washing removes the germs that you come in contact with as you go about your daily activities.
When you wash your hands, use soap and warm water. Rub your hands together and make sure to wash all parts of your hands for about 15 seconds. Dry with a clean towel or paper towel. You can use alcohol-based hand sanitizers if you can't wash your hands.
Wash your hands whenever they get soiled and after every diaper change or trip to the bathroom. Other important times to wash hands or use hand sanitizer include:
- When school-aged children return home from school
- When returning home from any outing
- After pumping gas
- After handling raw foods
- After handling another baby
- After sneezing or nose blowing
Ask About the RSV Vaccine
Respiratory synctial virus (RSV) can be devastating for premature infants. Although the virus causes just a bad cold in healthy adults and children, it can cause difficulty breathing in preemies and is the number one cause of rehospitalization.
Hand washing is the first line of defense against RSV, but your child may also be eligible for an RSV prevention medication called Synagis. Often called the RSV vaccine, Synagis is not a true vaccine but contains manufactured antibodies to the RSV virus. The shots are administered monthly throughout the RSV season to protect your preemie against the bug.
Not every preemie needs the RSV shots, and insurance companies only cover this expensive therapy for babies who are at the highest risk of serious complications. Your premature baby may be eligible for RSV prevention if he or she:
- Was less than 35 weeks at birth
- Will be less than 3 to 6 months old at the start of RSV season
- Has a heart condition or chronic lung disease
- Has other risk factors, including multiple birth, exposure to tobacco smoke, exposure to school-aged children, or a family history of asthma
Get Your Flu Shot
Like RSV, the flu can make premature babies very sick. A flu vaccine is available, but it is only approved for babies older than 6 months. If your preemie will be less than 6 months old during flu season, it's up to you to protect him or her from the flu.
In addition to washing your hands, it's important that anyone who comes in contact with your baby get the seasonal flu vaccine. Parents, caregivers and older siblings should all get the flu shot to avoid catching the flu and then passing it on to the preemie.
It is a great joy when a new baby is born, and friends and family will all be anxious to meet the new arrival. If your baby was born premature, though, your baby's health should be your top priority. Avoid taking your new baby to crowded gatherings, and have visitors wash their hands as soon as they come into your home. Ask friends and family to stay home if they have cold or flu symptoms to protect your baby.
Until your baby is stronger and your pediatrician gives you the green light to venture out of the house more frequently, avoid taking your baby into crowded places. Newborn babies who were born premature should stay away from:
- Shopping malls
- Church or gym nurseries
- Large family gatherings
- Schools and daycare facilities
Read More: Finding Child Care for Your Premature Baby
Exposure to tobacco smoke puts your baby at risk for a number of conditions, including RSV and other respiratory illnesses. It's best for you and your baby if you don't smoke.
If you do smoke, there are steps you can take to minimize your baby's exposure and reduce the risk of respiratory illnesses:
- Never smoke inside the home.
- Never smoke in a car with your baby inside.
- Wear a jacket or long-sleeved shirt when you smoke. After you smoke, remove the jacket and wash your hands.
- Until your baby is older, don't visit the home of anyone who smokes inside.
Centers for Disease Control. "Protecting Against Influenza (Flu): Advice for Caregivers of Children Less Than 6 Months Old." Accessed Oct 18, 2010 from http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/infantcare.htm
Linden, Dana, Paroli, Emma Trenti, and Doron, Mia Weschler. Preemies: The Essential Guide for Parents of Premature Babies. 2nd Ed. Gallery Books. Nov. 2010, New York.
MedImmune. "Frequently Asked Questions About Synagis and RSV." Accessed October 20, 2011 from https://www.synagis.com/faq.aspx