Kids naturally amazing at getting sick. It’s a skill they come with. This is why runny noses are a mainstay of childhood and why attempting to ward off every virus or bug that wants to squat in a kid’s upper respiratory tract in a waste of time. But there is a big difference between those seasonal bugs that keep kids snotty and the much more serious infectious diseases that should cause parents real concern.
The influenza virus is the most common of these diseases, and it can pose a real risk to children—especially babies. Most kids get through the unpleasant ordeal of being bedridden by the flu, but the reality is that every year some kids do die from influenza. Overly precautious parents might be tempted to keep their family indoors for the entirety of flu season and wait until the spring before venturing outside. But with some careful precautions, parents can limit a baby’s exposure to those dangers and still venture outside.
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Flu Season and Kids
How to Protect a Baby During Flu Season
- Immunize your family. If Mom, Dad, and siblings are protected from the virus, there is less chance of bringing the virus home with baby.
- Scope out your destination. Is anyone there contagious? Do they have a fever, or have they had a fever within 24 hours? If so, come back another day.
- Sanitize your hands. Bring hand sanitizer with you, and frequently wash your hands to make sure you don’t transfer the flu to your baby.
- Don’t fear the cold. If the baby is wrapped up warm, lower temperatures alone won’t make him or her more susceptible to getting sick.
“As a dad of children I try not to keep my kids in a bubble,” says Aaron Milstone, M.D., an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “But I think we need to be smart and avoid places where we know other kids and adults are sick.”
That might seem difficult to do this year. A spike in the number of people seeking medical attention for the flu has made headlines, but the jury is still out on why the numbers are up. The best thing to do, Milstone says, is to treat the annual flu season with the same due diligence no matter what the forecasts are. “Every year, influenza poses a grave risk, especially to young children, and I don’t think this year is particularly different,” Milstone says. “Your prevention strategy should be the same each year.”
Clothing choices don’t really make a difference. Of course, it’s always essential to dress babies for the weather—layering has its own benefits for keeping baby at just the right level of toasty—but it’s a misconception that the cold temperature in-and-of-itself increases anyone’s chances of catching any viral illness.
“There’s a lot of speculation about how different climates and different temperatures affect the spread of the flu, and it’s this point it is really mostly speculation,” says Milstone. He adds that some people think that congregating indoors increases your odds of being exposed, but that is not conclusive.
When stepping out with the baby, pack some hand sanitizer. It works well for killing off the virus before it is transferred to your baby, but Milstone says that it is not a panacea — it is part of an overall approach to health etiquette. “Hand sanitizer is important if you’re touching your mouth and nose, places where these viruses live,” Milstone says, “and the best way to protect everyone else is to wash your hands.” Traditional advice such as coughing into your elbow and thoroughly washing your hands after you touch your nose or mouth still holds true.
When deciding whether to visit a relative, pay attention to how that relative is feeling. It’s fine to go to daycare to visit Grandma, Milstone says, so long as nobody there shows signs of being infected and contagious. If Grandma has had a run-in with the flu and she still has a fever? Wait at least a day after that fever leaves before risking it.
“A good rule of thumb is that if it has been 24 hours without a fever and without fever-reducing drugs, then you’re probably not at high risk,” Milstone says. “And, similarly, if those kids have been sick and have a fever still, they probably shouldn’t be going to visit Grandma, either.”
Preparing a baby to leave the house during flu season has less to do with packing the right stuff on the day and more to do with longer-term preventative preparations. “Babies rely on the protection they get from their mother, because [babies] can’t get the [flu] vaccine until they are six months old,” Milstone says. If Mom is breastfeeding, then she can pass her antibodies to the flu through to the baby. Dad and siblings can help by getting vaccinated to reduce the chances of bringing the flu into the house.
Milstone explains that for the first six months of baby’s life, safety is a concerted effort.
“Babies don’t have the ability to protect themselves like everyone else does,” Milstone says. “We really have to be there at the gatekeepers for babies in the first few months of life.”