It's flu season, and parents don't get sick days. Even if you have a village surrounding you, there's a good chance you'll need to know how to care for your baby when you have the flu. You don't want to make your illness worse (what is the meaning of "rest" when you're a parent?), and you also want to prevent your baby from contracting the dangerous virus. In a perfect world, your baby would get whisked away by your partner or another trusted person to play at the park and eat Goldfish while you languished in bed, but for parents who stay at home to care for their children or parents who don't have that kind of help, this guide is necessary.
First and foremost, there is one way that you can care for your child before you even get sick with the flu: have everyone in your family, and everyone who cares for your baby, get the flu shot. It also means getting your baby vaccinated if they are over 6 months old. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone get the flu shot, but it is especially important for people who interact with those in vulnerable populations like babies, those with compromised immune systems, and the elderly. Not only can the flu shot prevent the flu in many cases, but the CDC noted that getting the flu shot lessens the risk of severe influenza among adults. It's not clear whether this benefit extends to children, but parents getting better more quickly is a good thing for the entire family.
So how do you care for your baby when you have the flu if the vaccine wasn't effective for you? It's not easy, and it's not simple. I lived through this hell when my son was just 10 months old. It was the year of the Swine Flu, and I was ill for well over a week. I was a miserable mess, but when you have the flu, you still have to parent your child.
The day-to-day interactions between your child and yourself become complicated when you are sick. Taking care of yourself is truly important, and managing that at the same time you care for your baby can seem impossible. To find out how people manage, I turned to my most intrepid group of friends: military and civil service wives and partners who are frequently doing 100 percent of the child raising far away (sometimes thousands of miles) from anyone they trust to help.
Their best strategies were the simplest, and their advice is hard-learned from personal experience. The thing I heard over and over was that you can't pressure yourself to parent perfectly when your sick. If your baby is old enough to be entertained by the television, by all means, introduce them to Elmo and the fine animals of the Paw Patrol, and let them watch that box until they are thoroughly tired of it. If they're old enough to love the iPad? Download semi-educational apps, (like Minecraft) and don't feel guilty about it.
If you're really sick and you are on your own, the best practice is to keep everything on one level, preferably in one room, and as near to the bathroom as possible. Order every meal that you can afford, so you don't have to prepare anything, and constantly check in at regular intervals with someone you trust, so that if anything changes, they can get help to you. (It sounds dire, but the flu is no joke.) Don't try to overdo it. If you have to just lie down on the floor with your baby to safely calm them, then that is what you do.
The doctors I spoke with were fairly pragmatic about how to care for a baby when you have the flu. Family medical practitioner Dr. Richard Honaker of Your Doctors Online tells Romper that "Parenting a child when you are unwell is not easy. If at all possible, [you should] try to find alternative care until you have been fever-free for 24 hours."
This makes sense for those with family or close friends nearby who can assist, but not so much for those like me, who have no family close enough to watch my children. However, he explains that "if this is not possible, I would advise you to wash your hands as often as possible and wear a surgical mask to avoid the spread of infection."
Dr. Maya Bunik, Medical Director at the Child Health Clinic, Children’s Hospital Colorado agrees with Honacker that hand-washing and delegating childcare duties are some of the best things you can do. But she also suggests "asking for family and friends to help" so that you can get the rest you need.
As far as medical relief for your symptoms, pediatrician Dr. Pamela Schoemer from UPMC Children’s Community Pediatrics tells parents that while it is tempting to take a bunch of over-the-counter meds to help feel better (bring on the Theraflu Hot Toddies, am I right?) parents "need to be cautious about the side effects if you are in charge of the kids. Many may cause drowsiness and you don’t want to take those and then be too sleepy to react to their needs." If you are confirmed to have the flu, Schoemer says that "there may be other treatments that can get you feeling better more quickly and help prevent the spread."
Something that may surprise you is that nursing is not off the table when you have the flu. "If you are breastfeeding your baby, it is safe and even recommended that you continue. Your baby will get the benefit of the antibodies your body is making transmitted in the milk," Schoemer says. But she notes that "if you need to take a break because you are too tired or not able to keep up with your fluids, that is when you need to know it is fine to use an alternative feeding method for your child." Breastfeeding is great, but not at the expense of your health.
Get to the doctor, ask for help if you can, and get well. And, if you have options for childcare, maybe also ask for the hot toddy.
Dr. Richard Honaker, family practitioner with Your Doctors Online
Dr. Maya Bunik, Medical Director at the Child Health Clinic, Children’s Hospital Colorado
Dr. Pamela Schoemer, UPMC Children’s Community Pediatrics