As the mom of a preemie born in the thick of cold, flu, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) season, it used to drive me crazy when people would tell me I needed to expose my daughter to germs to strengthen her immune system. These were well-intentioned people who just didn’t know that infections considered easily treatable in most babies and kids can be dangerous or even deadly for preemies. Setting them straight wasn’t always easy. It can already be awkward, as a parent, to have to ask friends and family to delay visits or to tell loved ones that having to avoid large gatherings will mean staying home for the holidays. Correcting these same people’s assumptions about how preemies cope with germs on top of everything can make things doubly uncomfortable. But October is RSV Awareness Month! And that makes having the conversation a little bit easier.
It’s just a fact of life that babies and kids born early are more likely to get sick with illnesses like RSV than those born at full term. A preemie may already have weak lungs along with an immune system so immature that it is essentially non-existent, and infections like RSV are no joke. Even the common cold can send a preemie to the hospital! I knew that my relatives and friends who fell into the “germ exposure is important” camp were only trying to be helpful, but at the same time I also knew that everyone in a preemie’s life – like grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, cousins, and friends – could be and should be responsible for keeping her healthy.
Seven Ways YOU Can Protect Preemies from RSV and Other Illnesses
Do you want to help protect preemies from RSV during RSV Awareness Month and all year long? Even if you’re not a preemie parent, you can still protect preemies from RSV and other wintertime illnesses like colds and the flu by following these guidelines:
- Don’t be offended if a mom or dad of a preemie baby asks you to wash your hands before holding him – or makes it clear that they’d rather no one touch or hold him right now. Hand washing should be standard procedure before touching any baby, after all. And there will be plenty of time to cuddle this particular preemie when RSV season is over.
- Likewise, there will be plenty of time for visiting. If you’re feeling the least bit sick yourself or you’ve been around sick people at your job or in your household, reschedule that upcoming visit.
- Get your seasonal flu shot and encourage anyone else who will be around a preemie to do the same. That one tiny jab not only protects you from the flu, but also helps you avoid passing on the flu if you practice good hand washing habits.
- Offer to help parents stay on top of errands that require going to places where exposure to sick people is a possibility. For example, doing a bi-weekly grocery run for the family means one less trip to a crowded store and one less chance of running into someone with RSV.
- Be understanding when moms and dads of preemies bow out of holiday parties or decline invitations to events where there will be crowds. Besides the risk of exposure to colds, the flu, and RSV, many preemies find that kind of atmosphere overwhelming.
- Find other ways to socialize and keep up with parents of preemies, who may feel extra isolated when RSV season keeps them homebound. Phone calls and emails can be a great way to help moms and dads stay connected just make sure to be flexible about replies. These are parents, after all!
- Finally, never accuse preemie parents of being overprotective. Very few moms and dads relish the idea of spending all fall and winter cooped up at home, so please believe that they’re being extra cautious because they have to.
Keeping preemies safe from RSV, and from other illnesses like colds and the flu, can be hard on parents, but family and friends like you can make it that much easier. Some extra attention to health and hand washing on your part may be just what it takes to get the family of a premature infant or child through fall and winter cold-, flu-, and RSV-free! Remember, we’re all in this together!