How to Help Keep Preemies Healthy This Winter:
 A Guide for Extended Family and Friends

No one enjoys feeling under the weather, but at this time of year, with coughs and colds quickly working their way through our homes and workplaces, we often try to just get on with life while managing symptoms the best we can. Tissues and decongestants become household staples. But for families with preemies, the worries associated with cold and flu season are much more than missing a day of school or work to rest up. Of particular concern is an infection of RSV, Respiratory Syncytial Virus. RSV is common, especially among small children, and usually causes little more than cold-like symptoms in healthy children and adults. But it, along with other respiratory infections, are much more serious in a child who was born early.

Because important lung development happens in the last few weeks of full-term pregnancies, preemies often face serious respiratory challenges at birth and throughout early childhood. Their respiratory systems tend to be smaller and less-developed than those of full-term babies and their immune systems are still developing, so any congestion or inflammation can cause severe illness, often requiring lengthy hospitalization. Thankfully, there are many ways friends and family can help keep preemies safe and healthy. Here are a few:

Always wash hands. Handwashing is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of disease, and it is hard to overstate its importance. If you are going to visit a new baby, preemie or not, ask where you can wash your hands before saying hello to the child. Parents will appreciate your initiative! And of course, wash thoroughly with soap and warm water.

If you or someone in your household is sick, plan to visit the baby well after everyone has fully recovered. It is tempting to think, “Oh, I just have a sniffle, it’ll be alright if I just don’t kiss the baby”. Unfortunately, the germs from even a slight cold in an adult pose such a great risk to the baby that the best way to show you care is to hold off on a visit. The same goes if a member of your household is sick – you may still carry the bacteria or virus without showing symptoms yourself. Luckily, we have technology like Skype and Facetime! Ask the parents if there is a time you can arrange to do a video chat.

Get your influenza vaccination. Getting vaccinated is always a good idea. And if you’ll be spending time with a newborn during flu season, it’s an important way to protect the baby from infection while her immune system develops. If everyone surrounding the baby has been vaccinated, she’ll be much safer.

Remove your shoes when you go into the house. Taking off your shoes before going in can greatly reduce the number of germs a baby is exposed to. If you are a regular visitor, like a close family member or caregiver, ask if you can keep a pair of slippers or indoor-only shoes at the house.

Avoid exposing the baby to irritants like smoke and pet hair. A tiny new baby’s respiratory system is easily aggravated by smoke and allergens, opening the door to infection. Never smoke around the baby and make sure to wear freshly-laundered clothes so that there’s nothing to bother the baby if you get to cuddle him or her!

Offer to help around the house. If the parents are open to it, offer to do a load of laundry or a little cleaning while you’re there. Keeping a home clean with a new baby is a tall task, and parents may appreciate an offer to lighten their load.

Get educated! Preemies face many challenges that a lot of people just don’t know about. A respiratory infection - which is an unpleasant, yet ultimately immunity-building experience for an older, full-term baby – can turn into a life-threatening illness for a child who was born early. Listen to the parents and if you’re close with the family, try to get a full understanding of the challenges that particular child faces. You’ll be better equipped to help keep the baby healthy. Here are some websites with more information about preemies and respiratory infections:

https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/chest-lungs/Pages/RSV-When-Its-More-Than-Just-a-Cold.aspx

http://www.marchofdimes.org/baby/rsv.aspx

https://www.cdc.gov/rsv/index.html