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.)
Winterize... His Ears
Germs enter the middle ear through the nose, so clearing those little nostrils is the best way to protect his ears, too. Also make sure to:
Sit him upright during and after feedings
Drinking while reclined makes it easier for milk to travel through the eustachian tube to the middle ear, where it becomes the perfect culture medium for bacteria to grow and thrive. Upright eating also enables the stomach to empty faster, cutting down on reflux, a common gastrointestinal condition that can lead to ear infections (when stomach acid flows back up into the throat and eustachian tube). I recommend feeding your baby at an angle of at least 30 degrees (you don't want to be able to look up his nose) and keeping him upright as much as you can for 30 minutes afterward.
Keep a close eye on colds
Ear infections often follow common viral infections, so watch for fever and signs of ear pain when your child has the sniffles: crying when you lay him down, frequent waking at night (not from hunger), increasingly thick mucus, a change in his sucking style or a refusal to feed, and drainage from his eyes or ears. Ear pulling is not a reliable sign of infection; babies play with their ears frequently, especially when they're teething. If you suspect an ear infection, visit the doctor right away to find out if your baby needs treatment; children under 2 are often given an antibiotic.
Winterize... Her Nursery
Your baby's sleeping environment plays a large role in her health. Besides never smoking near your baby or in the house, follow these room-rescue tips:
Use a vaporizer
Sleeping with closed windows and central heating can really dry out your baby's airways, which are even more bothered by dry, still air than adults'. When the heat goes on in your home, so should a vaporizer. I prefer warm-mist vaporizers over cool-mist humidifiers because the heat sterilizes the water, which means your baby breathes cleaner air. Also, a warm-mist vaporizer can keep a small bedroom comfortably toasty (energy-saving bonus: you might be able to turn the drying central heat down as a result). Cool-mist humidifiers will do the trick of adding moisture to the air, though, so they're better than nothing. A word of caution: Warm-mist vaporizers can pose a burn hazard. Be sure to put yours away before you get your little early bird out of her crib in the morning and after her nap. Also take care to clean it according to the manufacturer's instructions.
De-fuzz her room
Allergens such as dust and mold trigger your baby's body to produce fluid, which can build up in her nose and middle ear, leaving her vulnerable to infection. Children with allergies tend to catch more colds during the wintertime, but everyone has an immune response to allergens; move stuffed animals and other fuzzy things away from your child's bed while she sleeps. A HEPA-type air purifier may also help.
Curb your pets
Animal dander is another common allergen; keep the cat or dog out of the nursery to avoid stimulating your baby's immune response. Some research, however, shows that children who are exposed to furry pets during infancy are at lower risk of developing asthma, so there's no need to limit contact between your pet and your child entirely.
Winterize... His Immune System
No matter how hard you work to keep germs from infiltrating your baby's body, some will find their way in anyway. Your next line of defense is to strengthen his immunity to better fight the germs.
Stay on his shot schedule
All of the vaccine-preventive illnesses are more common during the wintertime. When I was a young doctor, the first hour or two of my rounds were spent visiting children seriously sick with whooping cough, encephalitis caused by measles, and other diseases that have been nearly eradicated by vaccines; I'm a firm believer that getting your child immunized is one of the most responsible things you can do for his health. The flu shot (for both you and your baby, if he's over 6 months) can spare you many sleepless nights this winter; if only we had a vaccine for the common cold! (For more information, read The Vaccine Book by my son, Robert Sears, M.D.) Breastfeed as long as you can Breastfed babies have fewer ear and upper respiratory infections, and are at a lower risk of developing asthma and allergies. Even part-time breastfeeding provides your baby with Mama's preventive medicine. Each drop of your milk contains more than a million infection-fighting white blood cells, plus immunoglobulins-proteins that coat the lining of the gastrointestinal tract and act like a protective paint to keep the germs out of the rest of a baby's body.
Stock up on immune-boosting foods
My favorite stay-healthy eats, in order of potency, are: oomega-3-saturated salmon, antioxidant-filled blueberries, vitamin C-rich fruits and veggies (strawberries, papaya, cantaloupe, kiwi, broccoli, and spinach), and probiotics-packed yogurt. During the winter months, I encourage moms to feed their babies lots of fruit-and-yogurt smoothies in addition to a variety of vegetables.
Winterize... Her Skin
It's easy for a baby's skin to become dry during the winter months, and as a result, we see a rise in eczema flare-ups, especially in the neck folds and groin, during this time. And serious eczema breakouts can leave skin vulnerable to bacterial infection. Keeping your baby's skin soft and healthy means treating it from the outside and nourishing it from the inside.
Do the "soak and seal"
Instead of rubbing your baby dry with a towel after her bath, gently blot her skin, leaving a thin layer of water. Then apply a moisturizer such as Aquaphor to seal in the softness.
Cut her nails more often
Dry skin itches; trim your baby's nails regularly to prevent further irritation from over-scratching.
Serve her fish
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in some fish, oils the skin from the inside, so I always tell parents, "If you don't want your baby's skin to feel like a fish, feed her fish!" Salmon is the best source of omega-3's, and wild Alaskan is the healthiest type of salmon (luckily, it's the kind found in most canned salmon, a less expensive and more convenient alternative to pricey fresh filets).