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I’m stressed about my baby being exposed to germs – is this normal?

Some anxiety about hygiene is normal for new parents. Babies are susceptible to becoming sick because they don’t have a mature immune system and can’t fight infections as well as they will when they are older.  But at what point does healthy concern become something else? Read on to understand more about hygiene anxiety and what can help.

Why am I so worried about my baby and germs?

It’s in your job description as a parent to want to protect your baby.  New mothers especially tend to be very vigilant about keeping their baby safe and away from germs. All babies have some degree of protection in the early weeks as a type of ‘leftover’ from the pregnancy.  Breastfeeding is also protective because it passes on maternal antibodies which help babies to build their own immune system.  Breast milk also contains lymphocytes, infection fighting white blood cells and healthy bacteria which colonise in the baby’s gut.  Any amount of breastmilk is beneficial, especially in the early weeks and months of a baby’s life. So, if you’re breastfeeding, your baby is generally well and healthy and you have no reason to believe they’re particularly at risk of becoming sick, try to relax.   

Am I the only one who feels this way?

Up to 1 in 5 women experience anxiety and/or depression during pregnancy and following their baby’s birth. Sleep deprivation, hormonal changes and adjusting to parenthood can also add to feelings of anxiety.  Help is available through your GP or local community health centre if you feel you are struggling. In the meantime, it can help to focus on practical ways to reduce feelings of discomfort around germs and your baby.

What to do when you can’t control everything

New mothers can often feel they need to have everything under control and be managing beautifully. The truth is that this is rarely the case; most mothers do the best they can with what they have at the time. Setting the bar too high leads to unrealistic expectations and then a sense of failure if everything doesn’t go to plan.

Try to accept that some anxiety is normal, but if it’s affecting your everyday enjoyment of your baby, it’s time to get help.

Remember that:

Anxiety around anything can be totally exhausting. It’s also a symptom for wanting to feel a sense of control, often over situations which often aren’t controllable.

Try to:

  • Focus on what is in your control. The early weeks and months of caring for a new baby are exhausting enough, without taking on extra work. Try to focus on what’s achievable and learn to let go of what doesn’t matter.
  • Care well for yourself and look after the basics.  Showering, changing your clothes, getting the sleep you can and eating well are all the foundations for managing everyday life.
  • Concentrate on keeping one or two rooms tidy, clean and organised, rather than the whole house. Your baby’s room, the kitchen and where you spend the most time may be realistic.
  • It’s important to keep your baby’s feeding equipment and dummies clean and sterilised.  Store any formula or expressed breast milk in the fridge and follow sensible hygiene precautions when storing their food.
  • Be honest with the people around you. Let them know you’re having a hard time and are worried about your baby getting sick. Ask anyone who is unwell to stay away and perhaps just have phone or video contact until you’re feeling more comfortable.
  • Ask people to wash their hands before they pick up your baby. If they don’t have access to soap and water, alcohol-based hand sanitiser is an effective alternative for clean hands.
  • Ask people not to touch your baby’s face or mouth or to put their  fingers into your baby’s mouth.
  • Limit the time you spend reading about baby’s health and well-being. Unless you find these reassuring, it’s likely they’ll add to your anxiety.

What can help my germ obsession?

Try to understand more about why you’re so concerned. Germ obsession, also called ‘phobia’, tends not to improve until the anxiety itself is eased. Focusing too much on the symptom, rather than the cause is not helpful. 

It’s common to feel a sense of relief when we can identify what where our anxiety is stemming from.  There are a range of therapies which can be useful including counselling, mindfulness, deep breathing, exercise and tapping. Sometimes medication, combined with talking therapy is needed to help control feelings of anxiety to a level where other therapies can be most useful.

Speak with your GP or Child Health Nurse if you’re struggling. If needed, you can be referred for support and counselling at a local community health centre or to a private psychologist or psychiatrist.

Written for Milton by Jane Barry, Midwife and Child  Health Nurse, November 2023.