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.