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New Baby Fever

My sister’s 2 year old has been pretty cranky lately. This is perhaps stating the obvious when the kid’s mother has been out of the house for the better part of a week and completely preoccupied when she returned…with a newborn. On Friday things seemed to be getting more extreme. Our mother, who calls herself The Human Thermometer, pronounced that he had a fever. A quick stick in the butt confirmed it: 101.7.

I don’t know what it is, but this seems to happen to almost everyone I know. You have your second baby, and the first kid comes come down with something, usually within a week.This inevitably freaks the parents out, pushing anxiety buttons and tugging at the heartstrings as they watch their beloved firstborn transform instantly into a threat to their vulnerable new baby.

What’s the deal with this cruel form of familial germ warfare?

I don’t know if there is any medical explanation. Little kids get sick a lot. So it could just be the luck of the viral draw. It could be the result of a lowered immune system, a reaction to a universally stressful situation.  Sometimes young kids don’t have much visible response to the radical life change that is a sibling: maybe their bodies do the talking for them.

I was talking with some friends last night about whether there might be some kind of evolutionary purpose to this phenomenon. When a kid is sick and needy, he effectively becomes a baby himself and needs someone to take care of him. Getting sick could be a way of garnering more of the dwindling resources of parental attention.

This strategy can succeed in gaining pity (and consequently more affection) from the mom. But it can also backfire, depending on the ratio of anxiety to guilt in the parent in question. My own firstborn’s fever upon my daughter’s return from the hospital was met with a virtual quarantine. We chased him around the house lining everything he touched with blankets and towels so we could throw them into the wash and avoid “contaminating” our furniture. I was afraid to hug him, which I’m sure felt great on top of his mother being co-opted by the human appendage now known as his sister.

Then there’s the somewhat less benign theory my friend posited. Maybe there’s some kind of Darwinian explanation. Expose the newborns to germs early, and weed out the ones who won’t survive to carry on the species. (Thus reallocating parental resources to more genetically prolific offspring).

Harsh. And thankfully, not really that evident in reality. As scary as it is to expose a teeny tiny baby to anything, the fact is that most diseases they are exposed to are not dangerous (mild viruses). For many parents the fear is not about the disease itself but about the looming threat of the Spinal Tap, which some doctors perform when very young infants develop a fever (to rule out serious illnesses). But although they seem (and in many ways are) vulnerable, newborns really are also quite well protected. If you are breastfeeding, they are being pumped full of antibodies. Even if you’re not,  they’re physically insulated. They are not out on the floor putting things in their mouths. They are not being handled by many people.

People do want to get their hands on that baby. But this is one place where you can assert some control over your newborn’s exposure. It can be a bummer to disappoint friends and family, but it’s up to you to decide who you want to make contact.  It’s not your job to provide other people with baby entertainment, especially if germs are a particular concern. If you’re having a hard time telling people to keep their distance, you can always blame your pediatrician—a tried and true deflection method.

In any case, a little (or a lot of) hand washing goes a long way to keep germs from spreading. Thorough lathering and rinsing is considered preferable to antibacterial lotions or gels. Get everyone in the house in the habit of a prophylactic scrubbing before getting close to the new kid. Including, and perhaps especially, the older kid. If you make it a required ritual for everyone, it will decrease the chances of him feeling like he’s the problem. If you can avoid giving him a general leper vibe it will probably be helpful, if only for your guilt.   I must say that my sister’s doing a lot better job of this than I did. But don’t feel too bad if your worry’s written all over your face. If my kid’s any indication,  the emotional damage is minimal.

photo: ♥ Cishore™â—à¹‹/flickr

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