Why you should always wash your hands before holding a newborn

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The reason is more important than you can imagine...

Keeping your newborn healthy and safe is without doubt one of your top priorities. Yet, in their early weeks, one of the largest threats to a newborn’s health is scarily invisible — infection-causing germs.

This article tells you why a newborn is so vulnerable to infections, and how the simple act of hand-washing can assist in keeping your little one safe.

Fragile system

In the weeks after birth, a newborn is highly susceptible to infection.

Our body’s immune system is what works to fight infections and illnesses caused by viruses and bacteria. But a newborn’s immune system is still immature and cannot work as well as an older child’s or adult’s to successfully fight and eliminate these germs.

Because of this, infants can can extremely sick from infection should they contract one, with premature and sick babies having an even harder time battling germs.

Newborns are not just more susceptible to germs than older children — they are also more likely to die from serious infection, claim medical experts.

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A newborn’s immune system is extremely fragile and vulnerable to infection.

Why is a newborn’s immune system so weak?

There are a handful of theories explaining why a baby’s immune system is so weak.

One theory is that just like his brain, lungs and the rest of his body, a newborn’s immune system is simply immature and will gradually mature over time.

Another is that both mums-to-be and their developing babies have suppressed immune systems so that they don’t reject each other.

The latest study in this field claims that the suppression of immunity in early life is purposely engineered by the body, to allow beneficial bacteria to colonise the baby’s gut, lungs, skin and mouth.

These “good” microbes provide some of the earliest stepping stones to lifelong good health and immunity.

Whatever it is, one thing is clear — it is of the utmost importance to protect a young baby from infections for at least two months, which gives his immune system time to toughen up.

One of the best, and easiest ways you can keep your precious baby safe from dangerous germs is simply by washing your hands, and telling everyone who visits your newborn to do the same.

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Wash your hands before your hold your newborn and request that visitors do the same.

Handwashing: the simple, yet effective way of protecting your newborn

Until your baby is at least two months old, it’s an excellent idea to ask visitors to wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water before holding your baby. Set yourself and immediate family members the same rule.

A study that was conducted in Nepal provides perspective on how the simple act of washing your hands can help keep babies safe from infections, even lowering or preventing the rate of neonatal death.

The study — conducted by Johns Hopkins University and the Nepal Nutrition Intervention Project in southern Nepal — involved over 23,000 newborns and their mothers.

All participating women had been informed about clean and safe birthing practices including hand washing by the birth attendant before delivery and by the mother prior to handling the baby.

They also received a clean birthing kit that included a small bar of soap. Researchers questioned the mums on days 1 and 14 to assess care practices and risk factors for mortality and infection.

What they found was that neonatal mortality was significantly lower among newborns whose birth attendant and/or mother washed their hands with soap or antiseptic.

In fact, newborns had a 60% lower risk of death when mothers reported washing their hands before handling their baby sometimes or always.

The study suggests that hand washing reduces overall newborn exposure to life-threatening germs, thereby reducing infant mortality.

Cleanliness 101 around a newborn

By now you know just how important cleanliness is when you or others are handling a newborn. If your baby was born early, then you have all the more reason to be adamant that anyone — including family members — wash their hands before touching or holding your little ones.

Keep these important guidelines (adapted from UConn Health) in mind before you hold a newborn — especially one in an NICU —  and be sure to remind and inform all visitors about them too:

  • Roll up your sleeves above your elbows.
  • Take off all watches, rings, and jewelry (except for plain wedding bands) and store safely or pin them to your clothing. The designs and crevices of jewelry may contain germs that can’t be killed by scrubbing.
  • Artificial nails, long nails, and nails with chipped polish have also been shown to carry more germs than short, natural nails. Consider keeping your nails short.
  • Wash your hands for at least 30 seconds in warm water and with soap. Point your fingertips toward the bottom of the sink. Keep your hands lower than your elbows so the soap, water, and germs run down the drain, not down your arms.
  • Dry your hands with paper towels after washing — a paper towel is best because it can be thrown away.
  • Use the towel to turn off the water; don’t touch the tap with your clean hands.
  • Nothing should be placed over your clean arms after washing.
  • Help children who are coming to see their brothers and sisters wash their hands for as long as it takes to sing two rounds of “Happy Birthday”.
  • Wash your hands again after touching your face or eyes and after changing your baby’s diaper.
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Don’t be anxious about telling others to wash their hands before they hold your newborn.

How to tell others to wash their hands before touching your baby

When it comes to visitors — including grandparents and other relatives — it can be awkward to tell them to wash their hands before holding your baby. But, do be assertive for your baby’s sake and know that your request is perfectly reasonable.

Most visitors will happily comply with your request, but if you have the occasional guest tell you “but I don’t need to because I’m not sick”, a gentle reminder that people cans till spread germs without visible signs of illness may work.

If your newborn has an older sibling, try putting him on “hand washing patrol” and have him take guests to wash their hands.

If visitors aren’t willing to wash their hands, or if you’re not near soap and water, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is a good option.

References

Science

KidsHealth.org

Nature

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