For most parents, the months between November and April are filled with attempts to prevent their little ones from catching colds and the flu. No parent enjoys their kid being sick, nor do they want to deal with the stress that comes with taking days off work to be at home with them.
For parents of premature or immune-compromised babies, the worry runs much deeper.
My son came home from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) in the later days of October, just as the weather was starting to get colder. His doctor’s voice played over and over in my mind warning me that something as simple as a cough could land him right back in the hospital.
Having just lived through six weeks in the NICU, my sense of worry was already on high alert. Every cough and each little sneeze led to hours of sleepless worry. We spent those months washing our hands raw and even donning hospital masks if we felt that familiar tickle in our throats—all efforts to try and avoid passing any germs on to our high-risk baby. Asking family and friends to stay away if they even felt an inkling of a cold became awkward. Not everyone understood the potential complications and many thought we were being overprotective.
As much as we try to prevent it, our children will get sick during the winter months. Premature or immune-compromised babies are even more susceptible to coughs, colds, the flu and even serious illnesses such as bronchitis, pneumonia and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV).
RSV season is the time of year where RSV infections are most commonly spread within our communities. In Canada, this season lasts from late fall through to the spring. Nearly all children (premature, immune-compromised, or not) will have their first RSV infection by the time they are two years old.
RSV can start with symptoms that are very similar to a cold: a cough, stuffy nose, sneezing and a mild fever. It can also impact a baby's lungs and there may also be wheezing, difficulty breathing and feeding. If you do notice any of these symptoms you should seek medical attention right away.
Because of his compromised immune system and complicated health issues, my son received a monthly vaccine to help protect him against RSV during that first winter. My daughter on the other hand, was a full-term, healthy baby, so there was no need to add the extra vaccine to her regular schedule—but she did contact RSV. The moment I noticed her struggling to breathe, I packed her up and took her to the ER where they gave her oxygen and medication. We were lucky, she was back home that same afternoon and recovered well.
Anticipating illness can be stressful for all parents, regardless of whether your baby was premature or full-term. Here are some tips to reduce your kid’s risks:
When your baby gets sick, the best thing to prevent panic is to be prepared. The Canadian Premature Babies Foundation is an excellent resource and can offer guidance on when you should seek medical attention. They have also written the Common Winter Illnesses pamphlet available to download for free. The pamphlet covers the most common childhood illnesses you may experience during the winter and how to prepare your family for them. For parents of preemies, World Prematurity Day is a great time to download, read, and prepare for cold and flu season.
Full-term, preemie, or immune-compromised—our babies are going to get sick and we're going to worry. It's a fact of life, welcome to parenthood! Being prepared by using the info above and feeling well-informed can take a lot of the stress out of it for parents.