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Winterize Your Baby

Every winter in my pediatric office, we increase our staff, extend our hours, and prepare for more late-night phone calls. We gear up with good reason: Children under 5 get an average of eight viral infections per year, most of which occur between October and April. Why viruses (and bacteria) prefer the cold months is still not completely understood, but it probably has much to do with the fact that people are confined together indoors with less fresh air, allowing germs to hop from host to host. It's inevitable that your baby will have his share of runny noses, sore throats, and sleepless nights this season -- and remember, his sick spells have nothing to do with your parenting! The good news: There are a few things you can do to minimize his risk and maximize his immunity.

Winterize ... Her Nose

Mucus is a major topic of conversation in my office. Parents cringe when I tell them my winter-health mantra -- "Keep your baby's mucus thin and moving" -- but those nasal secretions are your child's first line of defense against infection. Here's how it works: Typically, when germs and irritants enter the nose, they're trapped by the mucus there and then coughed or sneezed out. But when the air is dry and cold, the mucus in your baby's nose becomes thick and sluggish. The germs get stuck ... and stay there (think of stagnant water in a pond). Try my time-tested ways to keep the mucus thin and moving:

"Hose" her nose Squirt a couple drops of saline solution into each of your baby's nostrils, then gently suction out the loosened secretions with a nasal aspirator. (You can make your own saline drops by mixing one-quarter teaspoon of salt with eight ounces of water.) Instead of laying your baby on her back to do this, which she will find threatening and is likely to protest, sit her upright on your lap. If your older baby or toddler is going through the copycat stage, letting her watch you use the drops on yourself may help make her more compliant. And if she can't stand the aspirator, then just skip it; the saline spritzes are very helpful on their own.

"Steam clean" her airways Create a steam bath by turning on a hot shower, closing the bathroom door, and letting your baby breathe in the warm, moist air. During the winter months, do the "steam clean" as often as you can. Before bed is best: Hose her nose when you change her diaper and put on her pj's, then read night-night books to her in the steamy bathroom instead of the bedroom. This ritual can go a long way in keeping her airways clear and healthy.

Wash her hands The germs babies pick up from toys, surfaces, other kids, and even you get a free ride to their mouths and noses. Stop germs en route by washing your child's hands often with soap and water. (Save skin-drying hand sanitizers for when you're on the go and can't get to a sink.)