Flu Prevention Tips for Babies & Toddlers from Elizabeth Pantley
Flu prevention tips for babies and toddlers from bestselling parenting author Elizabeth Pantley.
Elizabeth Pantley, author of the bestselling childhood sleep guide No-Cry Sleep Solution, has just written an all-new flu prevention booklet that’s free for parents and filled with her signature, easy-to-practice advice and wisdom. What do parents need to know about keeping babies and toddlers healthy and flu-free this year? Here are some her favorite tips and answers to commonly asked questions.
What’s the main misconceptions parents tend to have about the flu?
Many parents think of the flu as just a bad cold. The word flu doesn’t sound very scary, but “the flu” is short for influenza, which is a highly contagious viral infection of the respiratory tract, nose, throat and lungs. It’s a disease that can be much worse than many parents realize.
You may hear about someone who had the flu and that it wasn’t such a big deal, but the flu can be mild or severe, and it can potentially lead to complications—including pneumonia, bronchitis, ear infections or viral infections—that land a child in the hospital. Every year about 20,000 children end up in the hospital because of flu complications. The younger the child, the greater the risk of getting the flu—and the greater the risk of developing complications.
What is the difference between a cold and the flu?
The cold and the flu are both respiratory illnesses, but they originate from very different viruses. Colds are primarily in the head: you’re stuffy, you cough, you sneeze, you have a pocket full of tissues … It’s an inconvenience. The flu is when your whole body is affected. The flu can be far more dangerous and land people in bed for a week or more. The flu causes a lot more discomfort than a head cold, but more importantly, having the flu can carry the risk for serious complications, so we need to be observant. Is this child having just a cold? Or is it the flu? If it is the flu, a call to your doctor or healthcare professional for guidance is in order.
[For symptoms of cold vs. the flu, see "Is it a cold or the flu?"]
Are babies and toddlers more at risk for the flu?
Yes, because children’s immune systems aren’t fully developed and they can’t fight the germs as well as we can. Studies tell us that young children are 2 to 3 times more likely than an adult to get the flu.
How do flu germs spread?
Flu viruses are easily passed between children because they spend their day at school or day care or the park touching each other and touching everything that other children touch. Flu germs in a cough or sneeze can travel up to six feet away. Children are taught to cough or sneeze into their elbow. The little guys may raise their arm to cough or sneeze, but then they totally miss it, spraying everything and everyone around them. Those germs can live on surfaces for up to eight hours and these kids are coughing and sneezing and touching books, playground equipment, modeling clay, cookies … The germs are being spread all over.
We also need to remember that kids can be contagious for almost a full day day before they show any symptoms. On any given day, a school or daycare, or the grocery store or park, is just full of flu germs. Most kids don’t wash their hands properly, if they wash them at all, so the germs are just spread everyplace they touch. Then they bring those germs home as well, exposing the whole family to flu germs .
Are flu vaccines an option for young children?
A lot of people who aren’t personally affected by the flu think, “Oh, I’m fine. I never get the flu.” Just because you never have doesn’t mean you never will. The younger the child, the more likely they will get the flu and the greater their risk of complications, so it’s important to be aware that just because it’s never been in your house doesn’t mean it’s never going to be.
There are two types of vaccine available for children and the CDC (Center for Disease Control) recommends that everyone six months and older get a flu vaccine every year. However, for a lot of parents, their children are afraid of shots and these parents may be thinking, not another shot! I really don’t want to do that. These parents should know that there are actually two options. There’s the traditional flu shot, but there’s also a nasal spray, which I like because it’s child-friendly, needle-free, doesn’t contain mercury or thimerosol, or latex, which are some of the ingredients that may give parents some concern. Even though they’ve been proven safe, parents hear things and then they get a little nervous. This is why nasal spray can be a really good option if your child is eligible, which basically is aged two and older and healthy. However, you need to talk to your doctor or pharmacist about a flu shot to find out about which one is right for your child and for your family.
What about parents with a baby who is under 6 months old?
Babies under 6 months old are at the greatest risk of getting the flu or complications, but they’re too young for a flu vaccination. So for babies, there are lots of things we need to do to keep them safe. One is to vaccinate everyone around them. If you have an infant in the house, wash your hands often and even if it seems a little overprotective, require anyone who handles your baby to wash their hands first. If you feel a little silly about this, just tell them it’s flu season and germs linger for up to 8 hours on surfaces and so we’re just trying to keep the baby safe.
If anyone is sick, simply say, “I hate to do this, but could you wait until you feel a little better to come over?” Other ways to keep your baby safe include making sure people who cough and sneeze stay away from the baby. If you come down with the flu, wear a face mask when you’re diapering or tending the baby.
What’s your favorite flu prevention tip for parents to practice with young kids?
Probably the most important thing for parents to do is be incessant about teaching children to wash their hands and do it right because that is the number one way to prevent the spread of those germs once they’re actually on someone’s hands.
What we’ve found out is that it doesn’t matter what kind of soap you use or the temperature of the water, what’s most important is that the scrubbing lasts long enough. You need to scrub about 20 seconds to get rid of cold and flu germs off your hands — about the time it takes them to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice or “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Get children into the habit of washing their hands after they use the bathroom, cough, sneeze, before they eat, after they eat, and after playing outside.
Kids are creatures of habit. If you’re consistent with “wash your hands campaign,” you can create a lifelong healthy habit. Another thing parents can do is download the free booklet, The Parents Guide to Flu Season, on my website or via the Don’t Wait, Vaccinate Facebook page. There are lots of easy tips for parents and quizzes to make it interesting. Stay healthy!
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