Our experts share their top tips for protecting your little one from bad bugs.

By Deborah Skolnik
June 11, 2015
PhotoAlto/ Matton

Germ Paranoia

Most new moms and dads are paranoid about germs. And rightly so: Babies -- especially newborns -- have yet to build up their immunity to the viruses and bacteria that can cause illness. Still, it's impossible to shield your child from all the bugs out there -- and you'd drive yourself nuts trying. "Parents should use common sense: Keep the house clean, keep their baby away from anyone who is obviously sick, and stay up-to-date on immunizations," says Philip M. Tierno Jr., Ph.D., director of clinical microbiology at New York University Medical Center and author of The Secret Life of Germs. Read on for more sanitary (and sanity-saving) rules every parent should know.

Keep Baby Close to You

"The biggest danger to babies is other people's hands," says Ken Haller, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, in Missouri. In fact, more than 80 percent of germs are transmitted by touch. Ask anyone who wants to hold your baby to first wash her hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds. Because telling strangers to wash their hands isn't practical or polite, it may be easier to say, "I'm sorry, but my baby gets sick very easily, so I don't like too many people touching him."

Stay Clear of Crowded Places

Experts agree that it's a good idea to limit where you take your baby during his first weeks. While a stroll in the park is fine, a trip to the mall is not. That's because newborns can easily pick up a bug when exposed to large numbers of people in a confined space. To be safe, keep her away from crowded places -- especially those with lots of kids -- for the first four to six weeks.

Throw Out Unfinished Milk or Formula

Whether you feed your baby breast milk or formula, throw out any leftovers as bacteria and digestive enzymes from a baby's saliva can backwash into the bottle and cause contamination. The same goes for baby food: Bacteria from a used spoon can taint what's in the jar. So if you're not going to use the whole thing, put just the portion you'll need in a bowl.

Place Formula in the Fridge

To keep freshly prepared formula from spoiling, never leave it unrefrigerated for more than an hour. Just-pumped breast milk, however, can be kept at room temperature for up to six hours, according to La Leche League International. Why the difference? Breast milk is loaded with antibodies and other substances that help keep bacteria at bay.

Wash Your Baby's Clothes Separately

"Since family members' clothes -- especially underwear -- may contain contaminants that could wind up on your baby's sensitive skin, it's best to do her laundry separately," says Philip M. Tierno Jr., Ph.D., director of clinical microbiology at New York University Medical Center and author of The Secret Life of Germs. It's also smart to occasionally run an empty cycle of bleach and hot water to kill bacteria that may be lurking in the machine.

Be Smart About Sterilizing

If pacifiers and bottles are brand-new, boil them before their first use. After that, wash them in the dishwasher or in warm, soapy water. Should you sterilize water for formula? "If your water comes from a municipal supply, unboiled tap water is fine -- it's rigorously tested and monitored," says Roy Benaroch, M.D., assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Emory University, in Atlanta. If your water comes from a well, have it tested for fecal contamination, nitrates, and heavy metals. Depending on the results, it may be best to boil it or even to use bottled water.

Take Precautions When it Comes to Your Pets

Animals' mouths are full of germs that could cause illness. To keep your baby infection-free, don't let Fido lick his face or hands for the first two or three months; the same goes for cats. Once your baby is a bit older, his immune system will be stronger and there's less risk of him getting sick. But no matter your baby's age, always keep him away from the cat's litter box and wash his hands after he's been playing with a pet.

Originally published in Parents magazine, Updated 2010

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Comments (2)

jules7611
January 19, 2019
Oddly, there are so many websites recommending waiting until the babies immune system is stronger to introduce to people and kids, but I happen to think that this is a strange thing and excessively being promoted in the past few years. In our experience with 3 kids, the best time NOT to worry about them getting sick too much is when they 2 weeks- 2 months. Maybe not pass them around the whole elementary school to hold basically naked (we did do this with our youngest when she was 2 months old and she did get sick...nursed back to health quickly though). But brief visitations where you're in control of how long the baby gets held, keeping it wrapped up, asking people to wash hands, etc is MUCH easier at the brand new born stage then when they are 6 months old, mouthing everything and no longer all wrapped up and don't have mom's antibodies as much. We know more kids that have gotten RSV from ages 6m-2 years than any newborns ever...is our experience weird? Please MDs comment on the number of healthy newborn babies you have seen that are nursing and require medical intervention for sickness related to external communicable diseases (i.e. not sepsis due to meconium staining, mother's illness, etc). We should take precautions with the newborn babies (keep them in carriers, wrapped up, etc) but we don't need to isolate women by treating all people like they have the plague. Babies are susceptible but basic ample precautions will do...not complete avoidance from loving people.
Anonymous
December 4, 2018
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