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Where's the manual? Protecting your baby's health in the first year

Published on: April 15, 2010

“Ed, he’s doing it again. What is that?” 

Our 4-month-old son was making a spontaneous, scary, sucking sound for the third time that day. As first-time parents, we were alarmed.

We videotaped the mysterious behavior and dropped it off with our pediatrician. She called to reassure us that the sound was a normal part of our baby’s development. We weren’t even the first parents in her practice to videotape this same behavior. 

If only babies came with manuals to calm our fears about their health! But perhaps the next best resource a parent can have is a good bond with a good pediatrician.

“It is very important to have a trusting relationship with your primary care physician,” says Dr. Danette Glassey, who has 18 years of experience calming fears of new parents as a pediatrician at Mercer Island Pediatric Associates. “When the physician knows you and your baby, and you know your physician, there are better outcomes.”

Creating a healthy environment

Though nearly all new parents fret at times, most babies will gurgle, coo, cry and cough their way through infanthood without serious incident. 

“Most illness is minor illness. It is very unlikely that your child is going to get something serious,” says Dr. Jill Allen, a Seattle-area pediatric hospitalist (a pediatrician who works mostly in hospitals). “Most kids come through the ordinary childhood illnesses just fine and stronger for it.”

Babies are born with a boost of protection from their mothers’ immune systems, which lasts approximately the first two months of life. Special properties of breast milk can prolong this immune system protection against some illness.

“Breast milk is not only good nutrition, it also transfers some immunity directly to the baby, so it is best,” says Glassey. “There are studies that show children who are breastfed have fewer ear infections, and less diarrheal illnesses. Even nursing for only a few months will reduce these illnesses, but nursing for one whole year is recommended.”

Whether a mother breastfeeds or not, a baby’s immune system functions most effectively with good rest and nutrition, and a healthy environment. Tobacco smoke is a major no-no. “Children exposed to smokers, even if it occurs in another room of the house, are ill more often,” says Glassey.

Most of the deadly ailments of infancy have been conquered by a powerful combination of immunizations, antibiotics and clean water. “A critical way to boost your baby’s immune system is to immunize them against the deadliest diseases, which include polio, diphtheria, haemophilus influenzae [the most common form of bacterial meningitis] and rotavirus [viral diarrhea],” says Glassey.

Baby bugs

Even with immunizations, most babies will have approximately two to three viruses within the first year of life, and can have as many as eight to 10, depending on their exposure. Most of these happen between the months of October and April. “Generally most illnesses babies get are viral illnesses,” says Allen. “There are ‘a zillion’ cold viruses, for example, and babies get them just the way adults do.”  

To limit a baby’s exposure to communicable illness, parents may want to resist passing a baby around to numerous admirers and ask people who do hold their babies to wash their hands in advance.

Some of the serious, life-threatening illnesses that doctors worry about are bacterial meningitis (the “big baddie” of infant illness, according to Allen, and rare with today’s immunizations), pneumonia, viral meningitis and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

If your baby shows any fever in the first two months, you should call your pediatrician.

“The combination of fever and listlessness is a big red flag,” says Allen. Signs of listlessness in a small infant include poor feeding, excessive sleepiness, floppiness, lack of eye contact if the baby has achieved this milestone, and lack of a social smile if the baby has one.

Child care and illness

“Babies are more likely to run into illness if they are in day care early on,” says Allen. “I’m not saying don’t do it, but recognize that risks can come with it.”

Working parents need to be ready to use up a few sick days after their baby goes to child care, where she’ll be exposed to other children who may carry illness. You can minimize the risk of illness through careful child-care selection. “It is very important to choose a child-care setting that follows good health and safety protocols,” says Glassey. “Some care settings are better than others in providing a healthy environment.”

Healthy Kids, Healthy Care
, a website developed by the National Resource Center for Health and Child Care and Early Education, offers criteria on practices such as hand washing, diapering and cleaning that parents can use as a guide when assessing care settings.

“As parents, we are all striving to do the very best for our children,” says Glassey, “and it is very humbling when those infants come along . . . for all of us.”

Rhonda Aronwald is a parent, freelance writer and owner of the communications consulting practice, RKA Communications.


Originally published in the September, 2007 print edition of ParentMap.

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