When you have an infant, keeping him or her away from germ hazards is hard enough -- the dirt, the dog's water bowl, the surface of a public changing table.
But there's one potential source of germs that's a lot harder to control: people. Specifically, the swarms of family, friends and complete strangers that always seem to surround little babies. Smiling grannies and grubby preschoolers alike, they lurch toward your defenseless baby like zombies, arms outstretched, desperate to hold, touch, or kiss the baby.
It can make keeping your baby healthy tough. Unfortunately, all that contact with germy people can make babies sick – especially infants. "Infections in small babies can be pretty serious," says Tanya Remer Altmann, MD, a pediatrician and author of Mommy Calls. "They can get very sick quite quickly."
So how can you keep your baby healthy and get other people to keep their germs to themselves? And how can you do it without getting a rep for being a high-strung, OCD freak? Here's some advice.
Keeping Baby Healthy: Do I Need to Worry About Germs?
Of course, you may wonder whether you really need to protect your baby against germs. After all, doesn't exposure to germs build immunity, and doesn't that help keep babies healthy in the long run?
It is true that getting exposed to germs makes the immune system savvier. When the body is infected by a virus, the immune system usually figures out how to defend itself. Then, the next time you come in contact with that specific microorganism, the immune cells are ready. They can often fight it off without your getting sick.
However, that doesn't mean that deliberately exposing your child to germs is smart. Your baby will get all the germ exposure he or she needs naturally, says Robert W. Frenck Jr., MD, professor of pediatrics at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. You don't need to help along the process by having your uncle sneeze on your baby.
Keep in mind that germs like cold and flu viruses that are pretty benign in adults can cause problems in young babies. For that reason, Altmann stresses that parents should be very careful to protect their babies from germs in the first three months -- and if possible, the first six.
Finally, remember that it's not only about your baby's health. Think about the logistics too.
"When a baby gets sick, it can be really challenging for the parents," says Altmann. "One parent may have to take time off from work to stay home with him, and that can cause a lot of problems."
What's more, once your baby's sick, the odds that someone else in the family will get sick are higher too. That one preventable cold could have repercussions that last for days or even weeks.