So much about having an infant or toddler is magical. So much of it really isn’t. But, few things are as stressful when you have a little one as when they are sick. Even a mild cold can be distressing and scary with a newborn.
It’s inevitable, of course, you’ll find yourself with a sick newborn and then later with a sick toddler. Kids need to get sick – that’s part of how their immune systems learn to fight sickness in the future.
However, that doesn’t mean babies and toddlers have to be continuously sick. There are steps you can take to help your baby’s immune system and lower their chances of getting sick so often.
Cold and Flu Season Is Here … and Illnesses Abound
According to the CDC, cold and flu season is typically in the fall and winter, peaking between December and February. While we call it “cold and flu,” there are several different respiratory viruses that can cause cold or flu-like symptoms aside from the different strains of influenza. These include:
- Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
- Human parainfluenza viruses (HPIV)
- Human metapneumovirus (HMPV)
- Respiratory adenoviruses
- Human coronaviruses
All of these respiratory viruses thrive during the winter months. This is in part due to the reduction of fresh air exposure and fresh air circulation, decreased sunlight lowering Vitamin D and melatonin levels (and lower melatonin levels can mess with sleep, further compromising the immune system – ack!), and forced heated air that is drier and carries pathogens more easily. It’s no wonder “cold and flu season” can strike fear in the hearts of parents of young children.
7 Tips to Protect Your Baby or Toddler This Cold and Flu Season
With my first child, a November baby when her father and I were both teaching full time, we battled some kind of virus starting when she was 3 weeks old then fought something new every other week until spring. When our second came along, I wanted to do everything in my power to not have a repeat experience. I knew to wash my hands and ask others to wash their hands before holding her and of course to not allow someone with symptoms near us if at all possible. But, was there more I could do?
The encouraging answer was yes! I asked our pediatrician and began to read studies to make the best evidence-based decisions I could. With each of my six children after her, I learned even more. Some of these steps surprised me and were surprisingly effective!
1. Protect Your Little One’s Sleep
I know, I know, we’ve all heard it before. It is true though. Nothing quite supports the immune system’s ability to fight off bugs like the restorative process of sleep. Hold the routine around naps and bedtime for best results and, when sleep is thrown off by sickness, developmental milestones, teething or something else, make it a priority where you can. This goes for the parents too because if your immune system is functioning well, you’re bringing less home to your little one.
2. Remember the Power of Human Milk
Chock full of immune support and even stem cells, human milk is uniquely specialized in protecting developing immune systems and infants and toddlers who receive human milk fare better in fighting off infection. With human milk, infections tend to be shorter in duration and lesser in severity when they do happen and that’s the next best thing to avoiding sickness all together. Read studies on the immune components of human milk: here, here, here, and here.
3. If You’re Nursing, Kiss Your Baby!
As long as you aren’t sick (and definitely no kissing the baby if you have a cold sore), if you are lactating, kissing your baby can help! This is because it creates a biofeedback system that quickly tells your body what your baby has been exposed to and increases the production of components that support your little one’s immune system. Kissing your little one is like taking a lab sample (minus any unpleasant needle stick or swabbing) to screen for pathogens.
Then the body can begin to produce the necessary antibodies and deliver them through the milk. Milk from those with sick little ones is shown to respond to kissing with composition changes.
4. Address Environmental Concerns
If you’ve ever been in the path of the smoke from a campfire, you know just how impactful air quality is on our ability to breathe well. A compromised environment compromises the body. Infants and toddlers have very small bodies, so help keep them healthy by limiting environmental pollutants and harmful chemicals. Everything from the air they breathe to their sleep surface can make a difference. Learn more about environmental risks in your home here.
5. Add Moisture to the Air
Everyone knows the importance of being well hydrated, but did you know that putting moisture into the air can help slow the spread of many respiratory viruses? That’s right, you’re less likely to get a cold or flu when it is humid.
This works by essentially weighing the aerosolized droplets of the virus down so they don’t stay suspended in the air for extended periods of time, reducing transmission of the virus (more here). Plus, the additional moisture in the air prevents the mucus membranes of the nasal passageways and throat from getting too dry, which makes it more difficult for viruses to, quite literally, stick around.
6. Get Some Fresh Air
In Scandinavian countries it is considered normal and healthy to put infants and toddlers outside to nap, even in the cold and snow. That may not be right for you and your child, but getting plenty of fresh air even in wet and cold weather isn’t a bad idea.
We know that air circulation plays a role in virus transmission and historically getting fresh air has long been a treatment for respiratory issues. Though much of the evidence is anecdotal and more study is needed, there is some reason to believe that getting at least 20 minutes or so of fresh air each day protects against viruses, improves lung capacity and lowers viral transmission.
7. Try Babywearing
Particularly with a newborn but also with toddlers, wearing your baby tied or strapped to your body, also called “babywearing,” can almost be like a way of masking by keeping them close to you. Plus, when they’re actually wrapped to your body, they’re not as likely to go touching stuff or pulling a real toddler moment and licking the stair rail.
There is no guaranteed way to keep your baby or toddler from getting sick – it is going to happen. Wash your hands, stay away from people you know are sick, see your child’s doctor regularly and follow their recommendations when possible. It’s also important to dress baby appropriately for the weather to avoid stressing their system further. Hopefully, trying these additional ways to avoid some of what’s out there will help you and your little one have the best winter possible.
Just remember, it isn't a failure if your little one gets sick or even if it seems like they’re always sick. It’s part of the deal with small children and we’re all just doing the best we can.