Keeping Babies Healthy: A Q&A with Dr. Gigi Chawla

Dr. Gigi Chawla, Chief of General Pediatrics at Children’s Minnesota, offers tips for managing your baby’s health
Little girl blows her nose into a tissue

Photo credit mbt_studio/Adobe Stock

What’s the 411 on vaccines?

Vaccination protects infants and toddlers from common illnesses (e.g., ear infections), more serious illnesses (such as pneumonia or severe diarrhea), potentially life-threatening diseases (like meningitis or measles), and even cancer (liver). When communities follow vaccination guidelines, herd immunity is in effect, which offers protection for children who are too young or are not healthy enough to receive vaccines themselves.

In the first two years, your child may receive these common vaccines: Diphtheria, Tetanus, and Pertussis (DTaP); Inactivated Polio Vaccine (IPV); Pneumococcal (PCV13); Hepatitis B; Haemophilus Influenzae Type B (HIB); Rotavirus; Hepatitis A; Measles, mumps, rubella (MMR); and Chickenpox (varicella). Follow your pediatrician’s advice about vaccine intervals, since repetition is needed to boost immunity, and vaccine timing, to offer protection during a child’s typical exposure to these illnesses. Don’t forget to ask your pediatrician for strategies to minimize discomfort while your child receives vaccines.

What resources do you recommend for parents looking into immunization and check-ups?

There is a lot of information available to parents, especially online, so it can be hard for new parents to know if a source is accurate and reliable. It’s best to check expert sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the American Academy of Pediatrics. My favorite online resources include cdc.gov/vaccines/parents and healthychildren.org.

For treating a sick baby at home, which remedies do you recommend?

There are several medications available to alleviate discomfort associated with digestive symptoms (such as gassiness) or reduce discomfort from teething. While these are generally not harmful, they are also not likely to be very helpful, either. It’s important to remember that these are all normal ailments that infants experience. Unfortunately, these are often more difficult for parents to endure than babies themselves!

Kids get sick frequently, but it’s particularly important to practice caution when your baby is ill. You should not give a baby under 3 months old any over-the-counter medication without first discussing it with your doctor. For infants 6 months of age or older who have a fever, it’s generally safe to give a dose of ibuprofen (Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) as long as you let your pediatrician know.

Aspirin is one medication you should never give your child. Using aspirin during an illness caused by a virus, such as the flu, chickenpox, or an upper respiratory infection can lead to some serious health consequences. Some OTC medications—including those that treat common symptoms such as headaches and nausea—contain aspirin under other names such as salicylate or acetylsalicylate, so be sure to avoid those, too.

From a health perspective, what should parents consider when choosing a daycare?

Parents need to know that babies in daycare get sick frequently. Kids must be exposed to illness (or vaccination) in order to challenge their immune system and develop immunity. While choosing childcare, parents should keep in mind the size of the day care and the frequency with which toys are cleaned. The more kids there are, the more exposure to illness your child will experience. You can expect your baby to be sick more than half the month while in a larger daycare center, at least for the first few months. If you are able to, consider having your baby attend on an intermittent schedule, going to daycare only a few days a week or less to decrease their chances of illness.

Don’t forget to do some research (parentaware.org is a good option) about the services offered at your daycare. Do they have the capacity to help your child developmentally? What do they offer besides just the presence of an adult? Try to spend some time there prior to making a decision, and trust your intuition.

What advice do you find yourself telling practically every parent?

The first year of your baby’s life is the most critical time for brain development. Don’t underestimate the importance of engaging with your baby in different ways, including through singing, talking, playing, and reading. This lays the foundation for the brain growth that occurs by age 3, when 80 percent of your child’s brain growth has occurred. Try to put down your phone and avoid screens. Instead, opt for activities that result in some sort of reaction from your child, like cooing, laughing, or talking, to help solidify those neuron connections.

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