The first two months of your baby’s life are exhilarating—and exhausting. Bonding with your baby, working out feeding issues, and learning their moods are nonstop activities for parents and caregivers. As a parent, you want to do everything you can to keep your newborn safe and healthy, which can feel especially fraught in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We spoke with UNC Health pediatrician Ricardo Baler, MD, about the newborn phase and ways to keep your baby healthy during this sensitive time.
“Newborn babies are fully dependent on parent care, and parents and babies spend these early months getting to know and understand each other,” he says.
Don’t worry—even if you are brand-new to babies, you’re up for the task. Start here.
1. Meet your care team before the baby is born.
Connecting with a pediatrician or family doctor before your baby is born is Dr. Baler’s top suggestion for new parents.
“It’s nice to talk before they have the baby, so that we can get to know each other,” Dr. Baler says. “We can discuss what to expect with lactation, how the baby poops and pees, skin rashes, diaper rash,” and answer any questions the parents have.
By meeting your child’s doctor ahead of their birth, you can also meet the lactation consultants, the nurses and other doctors at the practice. This can help reduce new-parent anxiety, Dr. Baler says.
2. Attend your baby’s wellness visits.
If you deliver your baby at a hospital, expect to see a pediatrician or family doctor at some point during your stay, in addition to consistent check-ins from nurses on the labor and delivery floor. The physician will examine the baby and oversee the newborn screenings that take place in the hospital.
Once you are discharged, plan to visit your community pediatrician two days later, and then when the baby is 1 week, 2 weeks, and 1 month old. These visits help to track the baby’s growth and give you the opportunity to ask questions, but they are not the only time you can get help.
3. Don’t be afraid to call your pediatrician when something’s off.
As a parent, you will quickly learn your baby’s normal behavior. If your instincts are telling you there might be a problem, listen.
“If the baby is behaving abnormally, contact us right away,” Dr. Baler says. This could include changes in eating, bloody diapers, nasal congestion, unfamiliar crying patterns or anything else that seems out of the ordinary. In many cases, your pediatrician’s office can help over the phone. If there’s any concern, they’ll bring you in for a visit.
It’s OK to call and have the issue turn out to be nothing, Dr. Baler says. That’s what your pediatrician’s office is there for—to help your family stay healthy.
4. Beware fevers.
Get a rectal thermometer to use at home if your baby feels warm. Fever in a newborn, defined as a temperature of 100.4 or higher, requires immediate medical care. Because very young babies have not been vaccinated against several serious illnesses, doctors will need to rule out infections such as meningitis or a urinary tract infection.
Babies are born with a weak immune system and rely on antibodies passed from their mothers in utero during the first six months of life. At 6 months of age, the baby can start receiving more vaccines that will protect them by building their own antibodies.
While a fever is a warning sign, sometimes babies’ immune systems are not yet strong enough to produce a fever, even if they’re sick, Dr. Baler adds. That’s why paying attention to changes in behavior, such as not eating and being excessively sleepy, is so important.
5. Remember basic sanitation measures, for household members and visitors.
Several of the simple measures taken during the pandemic are good to continue with a newborn at home. Wash your hands well with soap and water before preparing food and handling bottles. Ask visitors to wash their hands when they enter your house and before holding the baby. If you feed your baby formula, follow instructions for safe formula preparation and storage.
While newborns can’t get most vaccines yet, it’s important for everyone in the household who is eligible to get them, to help protect the baby.
“All caregivers and visitors should have all recommended vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccine,” Dr. Baler says. That includes long-term vaccines like Tdap (whooping cough can be very dangerous in babies) and seasonal vaccines like the flu shot.
Anyone who is sick should not have contact with the baby. If you choose to allow unvaccinated people to visit the baby, “for sure, do not let them pick up the baby,” Dr. Baler says. Indoor masking can help protect the baby from all kinds of viruses, including COVID-19.
6. Travel with care.
Make sure your baby’s car seat is installed correctly; in many places, the hospital or a police or fire station can help.
Pediatricians typically recommend waiting until a baby is at least 2 weeks old to fly. Of course, because airports and airplanes are crowded and contained places, parents often decide against nonessential travel in the newborn period. Your pediatrician can help you decide what’s safest and best for your family.
If you’re traveling without your newborn, follow all health and safety measures, such as mask-wearing and frequent hand-washing, to avoid bringing illness home to your child.
If you have questions about your child’s health, talk to your pediatrician. If you need a pediatrician, find one near you.