Its a great, big germy world out there and keeping your baby safe can seem like a confusing juggling act. While you can't keep all the bad bugs away from your baby, as a parent it’s your job to steer your baby around the most dangerous ones. At the same time you want to do everything you can to ensure that your baby's developing immune system has adequate time to become as strong and resilient as it can be. With some simple planning and preparation, you can easily master this important part of parenthood.
Germs are Everywhere
Germs aren't trying to hide from you. They're right under your nose and at your fingertips on the things you and your baby touch most often. Because you can't see them it’s easy to forget they're there – and, more importantly, how they got there. Doorknobs, kitchen counters and toilet seats are the most obvious culprits, but did you know that your cell phone is dirtier than all of those and, in fact, is likely to be the single dirtiest object in your home? A U.K. study found E. coli bacteria on 16% of participants' cell phones. Likewise, many remote controls, computer keyboards and even salt and pepper shakers harbor enough germs to be classified as health hazards.
Some viruses, such as hepatitis A and rotavirus, which causes severe intestinal infections in infants and children, can remain viable for weeks on toys and other surfaces your baby comes into contact with, even after you've allowed them to air dry. You can also transfer these viruses to your baby by touching those surfaces and then touching your baby or preparing your baby's food.
Your Baby's Delicate Immune System
Your infant's developing immune system produces fewer infection-fighting proteins and immune signaling molecules than that of an adult so is not capable of responding as quickly to neutralize and dispose of germs. As a result, infants can quickly become overwhelmed by infections and are at increased risk of developing potentially life-threatening complications.
A baby's lungs continue to develop from birth through age 6, making him or her particularly susceptible to respiratory infections. Because of their small body size and disproportionately larger lung surface area compared to adults, babies and small children breathe 50% more air – and therefore, 50% more germs, per pound of body weight.
Your baby can also be exposed to airborne bacteria and viruses when he or she comes into contact with surfaces the germs land on, such as bottles, toys and remote control devices. Babies can be quickly and dangerously overrun by the flu and babies younger than 6 months are too young to receive flu shots.
A baby's developing digestive system takes longer to process food. As a result, bacteria or viruses that enter along with the food spend longer in his or her digestive tract, increasing your baby's exposure. Because of their rapidly growing bodies, babies and small children also require more calories per pound of body weight than adults, giving them disproportionately greater exposure to food-borne pathogens and toxins. Once an in intestinal infection takes hold, infants and babies are at far greater risk of developing dehydration.
Finally, eliminating germs and toxins also takes longer in infants and babies. The kidneys and liver, which assist the immune system by neutralizing and disposing of toxins, take 5-16 months to reach their full function. As a result, toxins produced by pathogenic bacteria can accumulate in a baby's system longer and he or she can potentially receive a much higher level of exposure.
If your pregnancy was complicated or high-risk your baby may experience additional early setbacks in immune function. Babies who are born prematurely or who require intensive hospital care in their first days or weeks of life are also at greater risk for developing hospital-acquired infections. When you bring your baby home after spending time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) it’s sensible to take additional sanitizing precautions.