Preparing for House Arrest...
As the mom of a preemie who is, once again, navigating her way through cold, flu, and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) season, it is surprising to me how many people suggest that I need to expose my son to germs to “strengthen his immune system, especially now that he’s two.” I've heard it since the day we said goodbye to the NICU. I know in my heart that these recommendations come from people who have the best of intentions, and they don’t realize that illnesses and infections that can be easily treatable in full-term infants are actually extremely dangerous to premature babies and toddlers. They also aren’t aware that this is true up until age two, and sometimes, like in our case, beyond.
While it’s very important to remember that all infants must be protected from illness, premature babies have immature immune systems and get sick more easily than babies born at term. In fact, even a cold can send an immuno-compromised baby or child to the hospital. There are some precautions that can be taken to minimize risk.
Based on data from previous years, the NYS Department of Health recognizes peak cold, flu, and RSV season as October 16th through March 31st of each season. During this time, some parents choose to go into preemie quarantine. Preemie quarantine is the practice of significantly decreasing the likelihood that your premature baby will be exposed to harmful germs. This can be done by staying home, limiting visitors and outings, getting flu shots as a family, practicing good hand-washing skills, and not attending events and gatherings - as much as you want to. Basically, you become a prisoner in your own home for the entire season. This sacrifice is worth it in the long run, as it can greatly decrease the chance of illness and makes sure that they have the best possible chance at life. We are currently preparing for our third placement under house arrest and, though it's difficult in so many ways, it's so important to keep our son healthier.
Also, please keep in mind during this time (and always) that preemie parents are not being “overprotective.” Before we could even hold our children, we were taught the dangers of germs, proper hand-washing techniques, and the importance of changing our clothing and sanitizing. It was a matter of life or death. We have been conditioned to do whatever it takes to help our babies survive and thrive, so that’s what we do.
Of course, keeping preemies safe from RSV, and from other illnesses like colds and the flu, can be hard on parents, but others can help lessen the stress. Every person in a baby’s life – grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, cousins, and friends – could and should be responsible for keeping him or her healthy. Paying some extra attention to your own health, being understanding if you are denied when asked to hold a baby, and having compassion when it comes to delaying/cancelling visits may be just what it takes to get the family of a premature infant or child through this season cold, flu, and RSV free!