My baby's stay in the NICU turned me into a germaphobe

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock Photo: Supplied

Before I had children, I didn't think too much about germs. Sure, I avoided touching public toilet doors and the handrails on escalators, but overall I was exposed to germs in my everyday life just like everyone else. I picked up the common cold or tummy bug and didn't think much of it. That is, until my son was born seven weeks prematurely. When you have a baby born that early, you quickly learn just how easy and dangerous it can be to transfer germs. 

During my son's stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), visitors were not allowed in if they showed any signs of a cold or sickness. Generally, only direct family members are allowed in to minimise the risks, as the babies housed in these nurseries are far too vulnerable to be exposed to any outside germs. 

You see, many of them are premature. Others may suffer from genetic diseases, heart problems or birth complications. There are a million reasons a baby might end up in the NICU; these are not your typical healthy, chubby newborns. These babies are hooked up to monitors and sometimes breathing machines too, there are many cords attached to their tiny bodies to monitor their heart rate, their oxygen levels, a great number of things. Many of these babies will spend weeks if not months in here, until they grow stronger and are evaluated by a paediatrician as able to go home. 

When you find yourself visiting your baby in the NICU, day after day, week after week, you learn you must sanitise your hands as you enter through the main doors. You then have to do it again when you reach the room your baby is in. After a little while, this becomes automatic. You sanitise your hands without even thinking about it. You've been taught that you can't afford to risk spreading any germs you might bring in to your tiny and still not yet fully developed baby, and you fear the consequences. 

People who haven't experienced this will never quite understand the anxiety you feel. When your baby is in the neonatal intensive care unit weighing in at just over 1.8 kilograms, you learn things you never thought you would. I never thought I'd care so much about germs and illnesses. I never thought I'd be so wary of someone coughing or sneezing around me or my family. But when you have a premature baby, sometimes everything you ever thought you knew can change in an instant, and the way you think will never be the same. 

Even as your children grow bigger and healthier, you never forget how frail they once were. You never forget how dangerous germs could be to that tiny and vulnerable baby you brought into this world. It was explained to you over and over again by the doctors and nurses, how could you forget? When you spend the early months of motherhood avoiding any illnesses you can because your child has a low immune system (through no fault of their own) you find it's a hard habit to break. Just as I learned how to put on a nappy, so too I learned to avoid germs as if I was living in England during the plague. The habit has stuck with me. 

Despite what you might believe about what it takes to build up healthy immunity, somehow both of my children have grown into healthy young preschoolers with strong immune systems. They eat plenty of fruit, they play in dirt, mud, sand (you name it) until their heart is content. We just do our best to avoid actual germs and viruses. My kids aren't bubble wrapped. Though my son may have been quite sheltered for the first year or so of his life, that that was literally for his own health and safety. 

If you think a simple cold is no big deal, explain that to the new mother someone just coughed and sneezed all over in the shopping centre, who's now going to do one of two things. She's either going to get sick and not be able to visit with her newborn who is still in the hospital, or worse, she might not realise she's getting sick. She will go to the hospital, and unknowingly passing on those germs to her tiny baby whose immune system is lacking. 

Although my children are now preschoolers and germs are no longer a danger to them like they once were, when my children do catch a cold or illness, I try to consider the vulnerable members in our society who can't afford to get sick. My children and I stay away from public places until we are over the worst of it, and to be honest, sometimes it's a bit disappointing that more people aren't a little more considerate of others when they are sick. But then again, I wonder if I would worry so much myself if things had happened differently. 

You've probably met a germaphobe like me before. Maybe they offered you a tissue for your child's dripping nose, or gave a wary look when you sneezed in their direction. Maybe you know someone with a seemingly abnormal desire to keep their children away from anywhere that may seem suspiciously germ infested. 

Before you judge people like me as ridiculous, over the top fools, take a minute to think that maybe, just maybe, there is a reason some of us are this way. Try to keep in mind that other people have had different experiences to you and maybe they aren't quite as silly as you think.