All newborn babies are at risk of infection because their immune systems are not yet mature, and this is especially true for premature babies. This is partly because they have a lower immune function than term babies. Some babies acquire an infection during the birth process.
Why babies in neonatal units are vulnerable
Your baby is also at risk of acquiring an infection after the birth – known as late onset infection. This is partly because of the immature immune system and partly because babies who need intensive care have many interventions that make them vulnerable, such as intravenous lines, blood tests and intubation tubes.
Treating infection in premature babies
If your baby has an infection, the treatment will depend on what sort of infection she has. Bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics, while fungal infections are treated with anti-fungal medications. Viral infections may be treated with supportive measures such as good nutrition, although there are specific treatments for some viruses.
If your baby has a contagious infection such as a respiratory virus she may be nursed in an isolated setting.
Possible signs of infection
Alert your healthcare team if you notice any of these signs, which may indicate that your baby has an infection:
- she's floppy, listless or irritable and doesn't seem 'right'
- poor feeding
- a temperature of below 36°C or over 37.8°C for more than one hour
- rapid breathing or apnoea and recession
- a heart rate of more than 160 beats per minute
- vomiting or diarrhoea
- spots, rash or jaundice
- weeping, oozing or a foul smell from an affected area.
Preventing infection in neonatal units
Everyone who visits the baby unit needs to pay careful attention to hygiene to reduce the risk of passing an infection to the vulnerable babies. This means that you and your family members must always wash your hands when you arrive at the unit, and people with infectious diseases are usually asked to stay away until they are better.
If you or your partner have an infection, you may be allowed to see your baby if you take protective measures outlined by the staff (such as wearing a mask), but this depends on the policy of the unit. In some circumstances a parent may not be able to visit their baby until they are no longer infectious.
The single most important thing you can do to reduce the spread of infection is to wash your hands before and after touching your baby.
The following organisations can give you more information about the topics covered in this section.
The best thing you can do for your baby is to look after yourself. That way, you will be better equipped to handle the challenges that face you and your family.
The neonatal intensive care unit (NICU)/special care baby unit (SCBU)/neonatal unit is where your baby will get the treatment they need until they are healthy enough to move on.
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If your baby is born very prematurely and/or is very sick, they may need to be transferred to another hospital with specialist facilities.
After your premature baby is born the medical team will immediately assess your baby's health and start treating them if necessary.
Skin-to-skin contact with your premature baby is a wonderful way for you both to bond. It also provides health benefits.
You will play an important part in your premature baby's care, even while they are in the NICU.
Your premature baby's diet will be carefully balanced to suit their tiny digestive system while meeting the needs of their growing body.
Positioning your premature baby correctly can make them feel secure, improve their breathing ability, strengthen their muscles and reduce the risk of cot death.
You may be asked if you would consider taking part in research into premature birth. We explain what this might involve.
We answer some of your questions about your premature baby's time in the hospital and neonatal unit.
You're bound to feel anxious if your premature baby needs surgery, but try to focus on the positive: the operation is likely to help improve your baby's chances.
During their stay in the baby unit, your baby will have all kinds of checks to monitor their progress.
If your premature baby has any of the conditions below, ask the healthcare team to explain anything that you don’t understand.
Babies born prematurely are more likely to have problems with their eyesight and hearing, but in most cases treatment is successful.
It's worrying if you discover that your baby has a heart problem, but most defects are treatable and some do not even need treatment.
Many premature babies need help with breathing for a while. This is known as ventilation.
- Rennie JM (2005) Roberton's Textbook of Neonatology, England, Churchill Livingstone, p1017
ℹLast reviewed on April 1st, 2017. Next review date April 1st, 2020.