A pump dispenser of hand sanitizer is prominently displayed on the coffee table inside Jelissa Buchanan’s home. The mom of three hopes guests will get the hint to slather some gel onto their hands before asking to hold her newborn daughter. “I’m a little bit of a germaphobe,” admits Buchanan, who knows how quickly viruses can spread thanks to her job as an elementary school teacher.
Asking visitors to practise hand hygiene before holding your infant is awkward, but it really is a good idea, says Eddy Lau, the chief of paediatrics at St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto. He explains, “Newborns’ immune systems aren’t built up yet, so they’re more susceptible to infections. It’s really important for parents to be cautious about what the newborn is exposed to.”
Moms who nurse or bottle-feed their babies using breastmilk do pass along protection in the form of maternal antibodies, which help infants build their own immune system and lymphocytes (infection-fighting white blood cells) as well as healthy gut bacteria that promote intestinal balance. Breastmilk, however, does not necessarily protect against rotavirus, a severe stomach flu that can lead to dehydration, which can be dangerous for babies and children, explains Lau.
So it’s not unreasonable to politely ask sick visitors to stay away. It’s also important to use a disinfectant spray to clean surfaces that your little one comes into contact with, such as change tables. But you needn’t go to extremes, says Lau. A home is not a hospital, so it’s unrealistic (and impossible) to maintain a sterile environment—though some moms and dads may try.
“People roll their eyes at what we call ‘compulsive’ parents, but part of their anxiety is because it’s so new,” says Calgary psychologist Kimberly Eckert. She adds that most folks relax as their baby gets stronger and more capable, and they gain confidence as parents. If you’re still hyper concerned as your child grows (now you’re freaked out about germs at the playground), it’s a good idea to speak with your doctor about it and share your feelings with your partner to figure out how to manage your tot’s exposure in a practical way, says Eckert.
One way to ward off illness is to follow the recommended vaccination schedule for your infant. In Canada, it’s standard for newborns to get their first round of shots for tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), polio, influenza type B and rotavirus at two months of age. Infants rely on maternal antibodies until they’re around eight weeks old, when their own immune systems kick in, says Lau. Vaccine antibodies stimulate their little bodies to learn how to fight infection on their own. “We build our immune systems by being exposed to things and surviving them,” he says.
Though there’s no vaccine for the common cold, natural exposure to viruses from siblings or parents can boost an infant’s immune system so that she’s better equipped to fight future colds and other bugs. However, it’s best if you can delay that exposure until your baby is several months old, says Lau. He also advises waiting until the first set of immunizations before travelling by airplane, because being in close quarters makes it easier to catch germs.
Don’t worry, new parents—this phase won’t last forever. By the time your wee one is three or four months old, has weathered her first cold and has a few sets of immunizations under her onesie, this germy world won’t seem so scary. Just ask Kelly Doody. The Calgary mom welcomed her second child in July and is already more at ease this time around. “I found the paranoia relaxes over time as you realize they’re not catching the plague every time they sit in the grocery cart,” she says.
Parent tip: In light of new studies on antibiotic resistance, some doctors now recommend swapping antibacterial hand sanitizers for alchohol-based formulas.
A version of this article appeared in our October 2014 issue with the headline,"Germ police," p. 68.