First came the sneezes. Then the fever, sleeplessness, and inconsolable crying jags. My 6-month-old daughter, Evelyn, was miserable with her first cold. And that was just the beginning; on the second day of her infection, I started to feel ill too. “Great,” I thought. “Just what I need. I thought parents were immune to getting sick.”
But as nice as that would be, the opposite is true; your child is exposed to many sicknesses when she goes to playgroup and childcare. In fact, by the time your baby turns two, she probably will have had between eight and 10 colds.
Dr. Charles Shubin, director of pediatrics at Mercy Family Care in Baltimore, Maryland, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and assistant professor of pediatrics at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says that “reasonable exposure (which can be as simple as contact with siblings, other adults, people at childcare) will lead to an infection cycle of about three weeks.” In other words, the time between illnesses (from the beginning of one to the beginning of the next), usually lasts three weeks. Dr. Shubin adds, “This cycle makes it seem as though many kids are sick all the time. They don’t recover before they get sick again.” But this is not something to worry about, assures Dr. Shubin. In fact, a baby who has frequent colds as a young child will probably be healthier later in life.
That fact does not make those first years easier on your baby—or on you. Having a baby or toddler in the house increases the likelihood that other family members will become sick. “It comes with the territory of being a parent—you are going to have a sick kid and you’ll have to deal with that one way or another … Children will share their sicknesses with you—they won’t share their toys, but they’ll share colds,” laughs Dr. Shubin.
To keep the sharing of infections to a minimum, hand washing offers the best protection. “There’s no question, if you want to limit your exposure and limit your illness (especially when caring for a sick child), wash your hands. When a kid blows his nose or a kid sneezes, clean his hands and clean your hands. The bottom line is that if you want to do something to keep you and your child from getting sick, wash your hands, particularly after contact with your child. It will prevent most of the infections,” says Dr. Shubin.
Nevertheless, there is no way to prevent infection 100 percent of the time. And no matter how diligent you are, your little one will occasionally share that virus or bug. The next time you and your baby are feeling under the weather, here are some tips for making it back to health together.
Prepare for the Inevitable
Before the first symptoms appear, set up a sick day basket. Get some cold-related comforts, like soup, tea, facial tissues, and cough drops. If you are breastfeeding, talk to your pediatrician or OB-GYN about what over-the-counter medications are safe for you to take. (Read about some of the safest ones here.) Since you will already have the list handy, you will not have to take the time and energy to reach your doctor once you are down for the count with an illness.
For Baby, make sure that you keep your pediatrician’s phone number next to the phone. At a regular well-baby visit, ask the doctor about what medications she recommends for your baby in the case of a cold, stomach virus, cough, and other common childhood illness. Note the doses and ask for specific instructions about when to call the doctor’s office concerning your child’s health.
Dr. Shubin says that many of the illnesses children get are viral. Because we do not yet have a way to treat those infections, medicines like infant Tylenol or Ibuprofen are used to treat the symptoms.
Only medicate your baby when he or she is in danger of becoming dehydrated, suggests Dr. Shubin. “I use comfort measures for kids who are miserable. The one thing they won’t do when they’re miserable is drink. So I will use medicine for kids to help them be comfortable enough to drink.” Otherwise, tender loving care will likely help your baby heal just as quickly as medicine, he says.
Put Everything Else on Hold
Though it is true all the time, it is vitally true when you and your baby are sick: the most important thing is caring for your health and the health of your baby. Let the laundry pile up, close your cookbooks, and ignore the dirty floors. What your baby needs most when she feels sick is cuddling, comfort, feeding, and rest. Your body needs the recuperation time as well, so avoid the temptation to work while baby naps. Instead, take a rest yourself.
As soon as you know that you and your baby are coming down with something, cancel any appointments you have with friends or coworkers by simply explaining that your baby needs you to be home with him. Anyone experienced with caring for a sick child will empathize and understand that your reason for canceling is valid. And if they act peeved about your cancellation, maybe you should invite them over to sit with your baby for half an hour while you take a bubble bath or a much-needed shower!
Ask for Help
Part of being a good parent is knowing when you can handle things on your own and when you need to enlist others for help.
Make sure that there are a few people who you can call for help with the baby. Don’t be too proud or embarrassed to admit that you need an hour away from your baby or that you could use a ride to the doctor’s office. If you have an older child, ask a family friend to pick him or her up after school. And don’t forget about your spouse; he is probably willing to help when you are both sick, but he may not know what you need the most. Give him a list of things he can do to help.
I have found that my husband is willing to pick up the slack when Evelyn and I are both sick, but he often does not know what I need the most. My husband does not automatically realize that we are out of milk and that Evelyn has run out of clean cloth diapers, but when I give him a list of things he can do to help, he becomes a superhero and keeps the house running. And when I cannot fill my usual dinner-cooking responsibility, he has enough of a culinary repertoire that he can make something simple and nutritious.
Being sick with your baby is something that, hopefully, you won’t have to face very often. With a little planning and a few simple steps, those sick days may not be a pleasure, but they will pass more comfortably and with less stress.
Before you know it, you and Baby will be through the trials of illness and back to the wonderful feeling of wellness.