Your premature baby: Infection

Premature babies have less developed immune systems and are more susceptible to infection, but there are ways to reduce the risk.

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 baby unit

Caring for your baby

  • Mother holding baby to her chest.

    Kangaroo care

    Skin-to-skin contact with your premature baby is a wonderful way for you both to bond. It also provides health benefits.

  • Mother holding premature baby.

    Caring for your baby: your role

    You will play an important part in your premature baby's care, even while they are in the NICU.

  • Premature baby using feeding equipment.

    Feeding your premature baby

    Your premature baby's diet will be carefully balanced to suit their tiny digestive system while meeting the needs of their growing body.

  • Premature baby in incubator.

    Positioning your premature baby

    Positioning your premature baby correctly can make them feel secure, improve their breathing ability, strengthen their muscles and reduce the risk of cot death.

Treatment and medical support your baby may have


  1. Rennie JM (2005) Roberton's Textbook of Neonatology, England, Churchill Livingstone, p1017
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    Last reviewed on April 1st, 2017. Next review date April 1st, 2020.

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    Please note that these comments are monitored but not answered by Tommy’s. Please call your GP or maternity unit if you have concerns about your health or your baby’s health.
    • By Nkamogeleng Diale (not verified) on 21 Dec 2017 - 16:50

      Extremely useful

    • By Phillip mukoko (not verified) on 21 Jan 2017 - 09:37

      Very useful

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