When my daughter was an infant, I tended to go overboard in my fight against germs. I would boil the pacifier practically every time it left her mouth. I wondered how to sanitize the brand new stuffed animals she received as gifts. I even shielded her from people for fear they would just walk right up to her and touch her face. Then four years later, when my son came along, I don’t think I ever boiled the pacifier. He ate dirt and rocks, and I handed him off to whoever wanted to hold him. I am exaggerating—I really wasn’t that cavalier about cleanliness with him, but I did relax my standards (or obsessiveness) somewhat.
To get a better perspective on germs, I spoke to Philip M. Tierno, Jr., PhD, Director of Clinical Microbiology and Immunology at New York University Medical Center Tisch Hospital and author of The Secret Life of Germs: What They Are, Why We Need Them, And How We Can Protect Ourselves Against Them. Not only an expert on the subject of germs, he is a father and grandfather with hands-on experience.
Tierno explained that the immune system of a newborn is not as protective as that of an older infant or child. Babies are usually germ-free in the womb; during birth and their first contact with their mother, babies receive a “seed coat” of good germs, which helps to stimulate the development of their immune systems. Infants also receive some of their mothers’ immunities, and more of mom’s immunities will be transferred through breast milk. (See Yes, Breast Is Best: So Why Is It So Hard.) Although exposure to germs strengthens an immune system—Tierno says babies need to build up the resistance to germs gradually.
Generally, infants younger than one month should not be exposed to people unless absolutely necessary (for instance, a doctor’s visit), as the newborn is susceptible to catching colds. Be especially sure to keep your baby away from sick people.
Tierno advises keeping babies away from the general public or large groups until at least six weeks old. Specifically, avoid crowded places like restaurants or grocery stores; however, taking the baby for a stroll may be good for both of you.
Tierno notes that 80 percent of all infections stem from contact—so washing hands is critical. The primary way to guard your baby from illness is to make sure everyone who touches the baby has washed their hands—especially siblings and other children who likely carry more germs.
When a child is interacting with or holding the baby, take care that the child does not touch or kiss the baby’s face. The eyes, nose, lips, and mouth are all places where germs can easily enter the body. (For more information, read: Double Trouble: Playing Referee with Baby Number Two.)
To protect your newborn from microbes that could be ingested during feeding, sanitize all parts of the bottles and feeding equipment (including breast pump attachments). I wish I had known years ago about the dangers of heating plastic. It’s a good idea to consider glass bottles. For a discussion of safety of plastic verses glass bottles, see Plastics and Your Health, and the review, For Safety’s Sake: Glass Bottles.
Here are some other tips on basic hygiene, which can make an incredible difference:
- Wash hands before and after diaper changes
- Wipe the diaper area thoroughly at every diaper change
- Use alcohol swabs on the umbilical cord stump. Sponge bathes are recommended until the umbilical cord stump heals (around one week to ten days).
- For first water bath, Tierno advises using plain warm tap water and no soap or washcloth—just your hands—during the first month. Babies are born with an extremely protective coating on their skin, the vernix caseosa, which shields the skin from germs, and even a mild soap will break down this vernix.
- Stuffed toys: Since it is not likely that a newborn will eat her stuffed bunny, I probably didn’t need to worry about the cleanliness of her stuffed animals. But I found that some plush toys can be hand or machine washed and dried in a clothes dryer, and the heat of the dryer sanitizes the material. Check the label.
Protecting a newborn from bacteria and viruses can seem overwhelming. Just remember, with time our babies’ immune systems will mature, and they will have more resistance to the germs always present in our environment. Still, probably best not to let them eat dirt.
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