Having a preemie at home during any season is hard — it can be a challenge to explain to friends and family why they very seriously have to wash their hands as soon as they enter, or why you really can’t come over for a few weeks. If your preemie was born with a chronic lung condition or weakened immune system, it’s difficult to not be scared of absolutely everything or everyone he or she might come into contact with. I know from first-hand experience: my son Jasper was born two months early in 2009, and spent a month in the NICU. We then spent the first year of his life giving mean glares to anyone who coughed too close to him — until we finally realized that our child didn’t live in a bubble and we couldn’t make him.
RSV, which stands for Respiratory syncytial virus, is a very common viral disease of the lungs. It’s so common that nearly everyone gets it at some point, and it usually only acts like a mild cold once you’ve contracted it. This changes if a preemie catches it — RSV can be fatal for many babies who were born a significant time before their due date. My son’s lungs were strong but his immune system had taken a hit while in the NICU.
Jasper came home from his NICU at the end of RSV season, and since we didn’t have a car, we three were left at the mercy of public transportation. In fact, to get to his pediatrician we had to take two buses and a sky bucket — three different vehicles of public transit. This was six different opportunities (there and home again) for someone to get our preemie sick.
We learned a lot in the first few weeks of his life — something I chalk up to the amazing nurses we had in the NICU and our wonderful pediatrician in Portland. I’m not a medical professional by any means, but here are a few practical tips for keeping your baby’s health up if you find yourself in a similar boat.
First: talk to your kid’s pediatrician
If you have serious concerns or questions, make sure you’re talking to the NICU nurses and your pediatrician. I can’t stress this enough: our NICU nurses were happy to answer every single question we had, even when we asked them over and over.
Repeat after me: I cannot protect my child from everything
This is the first thing our nurses and pediatrician told us, and the thing they most often drilled into our heads. You can do your very best, but at some point you have to accept that you can’t keep every germ from getting to your kid — nor do you want to. Yes, if you see someone who is obviously sick you should probably avoid sitting next to him on the bus. However, as tempting as it may be in those first few weeks of post-NICU “Oh shit, now we’re responsible for our very tiny baby,” you also don’t want to loudly announce that you have a preemie with you when you hop on the bus. Just look around, find a seat, and hope for the best.
Baby wearing can really help
Since we didn’t have a car we didn’t have a car seat (our hospital let us leave with Jasper in a sling), so we amassed a few slings and baby wraps to carry Jasper around in. We each loved having him close to us when on the bus or light rail. He was facing our chests, easy to monitor (“Is he breathing? YES!”), and we just felt like he was a little more protected than he might have been otherwise.
Don’t go overboard with antibacterial stuff
It’s commonly understood that antibacterial soaps and gels don’t keep you from getting sick. The same goes for your child — having a bottle of your antibacterial gel or soap of choice throughout the house may not do wonders. Our doctor recommended buying regular ole Ivory soap and asking people to wash their hands once after coming in the house, and again if they touched their eyes, noses, or mouths. I did keep an antibacterial gel in my purse, but only to be used if we were out and something legitimately germy happened (like someone sneezed on me, etc.) and I couldn’t find a restroom to wash my hands.
If people don’t get it, give them the doctor’s number
Our pediatrician also told us to feel free to hand out his office number — if a family member or friend truly didn’t think germs were that big of a deal for our preemie, they could call him and ask about it. When we moved back to Alabama our pediatrician here was the same way. If you feel like you can’t accurately explain why your family needs to respect your decisions about hand-washing and your kid, then turn them over to someone who can.
Remember your mantra
You really can’t protect your child from everything. Jasper caught a cold two weeks after coming home and I felt like the worst mother in the world. How did this happen? Was it me? Was it my husband? Was it someone… Out There? DAMN THOSE BUSES! But you know what? After a few (seven) panicked calls to his pediatrician, I was talked off my ledge. Jasper recovered after a few days, and is likely all the stronger for the experience.
Just remember: one of your responsibilities is to keep your preemie healthy, but you can only do so much. From personal experience, learning to back up and take a breath every time Jasper coughed was a huge eye-opener for things to come. As a mother of a former preemie and now almost three-year-old, I’m a lot more laid back about Life With A Child.