Having a new baby is a huge life transition. The holiday season can add a lot of additional stress while you are busy taking care of your newborn. This is because what’s best for mother-newborn dyads (to rest, stay home, focus on breastfeeding, not have too many interruptions with visitors, etc.) is the opposite of our societal expectations of what parents of new babies should do during that time of year (traveling, family traditions, bringing babies to large holiday gatherings, entertaining guests, meeting family members, etc.)
As I reflect on my personal experiences as a new mother, I cringe at the situations I found myself in after I gave birth to my two oldest children during the holiday season.
The Holiday Season
My first baby, Grace, was born in early November. We got off to a really rocky start with breastfeeding because she had difficulty latching and I struggled to be able to make enough milk to feed her. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, I was pumping around the clock and trying to latch her on for almost every feed using a supplemental nursing system. I had not slept for a stretch longer than about 90 minutes in the previous 3 weeks.
What did my husband and I do for Thanksgiving the year we had Grace? We went to a large, all-day family holiday gathering at his parents’ house, where she was passed around like a “hot potato” from person to person, and there was not any quiet and comfortable space for me to pump and breastfeed her. It never went through my mind that I could say “no” to my in-laws’ big Thanksgiving dinner that year. I felt enormous pressure to come from all of our family members who wanted to meet and see Grace. I was also ashamed to admit to his family how much I was struggling to breastfeed. In the weeks after Thanksgiving, Grace developed colic and I suffered from very severe postpartum depression that almost led me to be hospitalized.
You would think that, after my experience with Grace, that I would have learned to not travel with a new baby during the holidays! But I actually found myself in an even worse situation after I had my second baby.
Tommy, our second, was born at the end of December. We lived 600 miles away from my in-laws at this time because I was in medical training in Ohio to become a neonatologist. When Tommy was about 6 weeks old, we decided to take a road trip to see my in-laws in Massachusetts. Since we had two little ones, we split the long drive into two days. I can vividly recall sitting next to Tommy in the back seat of our car, pumping while my husband was driving, and then feeding him bottles of expressed milk while he was in his car seat. We did this (feeding him “on the go”) instead of stopping so that I could nurse him, to save time and get to my in-laws’ home quicker.
We arrived at my in-laws’ in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, utterly exhausted, to find that my mother-in-law had a “surprise” for us. We were greeted by a houseful of extended family members who she had invited over to see us and meet our new son for the first time. All that I can recall about that afternoon is being in a sleep-deprived haze, sitting in their living room on a chair, getting handed a glass of wine so I could “relax,” and wanting to cry as I watched my newborn get passed around from person to person. Not surprisingly, Tommy ended up with a pretty bad cold and fever a few days later, and had a really difficult time breastfeeding since he was so congested. As I look back, I am thankful he did not end up getting sick with bronchiolitis.
Bronchiolitis is a viral infection in babies’ lungs that can lead to breathing problems. It is the most common reason that newborns, infants, and young children get admitted to hospitals every year. Although respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the most common cause of bronchiolitis, it can be caused by several other common cold viruses.
If I could rewind the clock to my early years of motherhood, it’s clear that I would have made very different decisions as to how to approach the holidays with my new babies. Each time, my decisions would have been focused on what’s best for me and my newborn, not for my in-laws and extended family.
If I was a new mom today, I would NEVER bring a 3-week old newborn out of my home for Thanksgiving dinner. I would also NEVER take a day and a half long road trip with a 6-week old and 2 year-old in the middle of the winter in the northeast! The due dates of my two youngest babies were in the spring, so we fortunately never had to make decisions about their first holidays when they were newborns.
Guidance on Newborns During the Holidays
Through the years since having my own little ones, I’ve provided guidance about newborns and the holidays to new parents countless times. Although a “newborn” is technically a baby who is less than 28 days old, for the sake of this article I am providing guidelines for all babies who are less than about 3 months old.
Here is some guidance about how to take care of newborns during the holidays:
1. Breastfeed, if possible.
If your baby is born during the holiday season, one of the best ways to prevent them from getting sick is to breastfeed. Breast milk protects newborns from infections because it has multiple components that bolster babies’ immune systems and help to fight bacterial and viral infections, including antibodies, white blood cells, lactoferrin, prebiotics, and probiotics.
Babies do not have to be exclusively breastfed to have immune protection from their mothers’ milk! If you are combination feeding, your newborn will receive benefits from even a few ounces of your breast milk per day. If exclusive breastfeeding does not work out, I am a huge advocate of continuing to partially breastfeed for as long as possible. In some cases this might mean pumping milk and/or directly nursing as little as 1-2 times per day. Small amounts of your breast milk, even if they do not seem like much, will help to keep your newborn healthy.
2. Avoid large indoor gatherings, holiday destinations, and in-person religious services when you have a newborn.
If you get a group of people together during the holiday season, chances are that at least one person who is present has a viral illness. As we were reminded during the Covid-19 pandemic, there is an incubation period between when one catches a virus and gets symptoms - remember that even if you feel okay during an incubation period, you are still able to infect those around you.
If you are unable to avoid bringing your newborn out in public during the holidays, consider wearing a mask (to prevent you from getting sick and passing your illness onto your baby), and physically separate yourself from others as much as possible. Some religious institutions have separate side rooms or spaces for nursing mothers and babies. If you are a guest in someone’s home, ask for a separate room or space to be able to hang out, feed your newborn in private, and try to get some rest.
If your baby was a preemie, and/or has had any special health care needs since birth, please do your best to keep them home during the holidays. Premature babies are at a much higher risk of infections, especially viral bronchiolitis, than full-term babies.
3. Limit visitors into your home.
As mentioned earlier, during the cold and flu season many people walk around with viral illnesses before they have symptoms. It is totally appropriate to “screen” all of your visitors for possible infection. Anyone who answers “yes” to any of the following screening questions should not come into your home while you have a newborn:
- Has a current fever or has had a fever during the last 24 hours
- Currently coughing and/or with other viral symptoms, such as nasal congestion or sore throat
- Has a known exposure to an viral illness in the past week, such as the flu or Covid-19
- Has tested positive for any viral illness within the last week
You also have the right to ask anyone who comes into your home to wear a properly fitting face mask or go home if they might be sick.
4. Practice good hand hygiene.
Ask everyone who enters your home to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer before touching or holding your baby. Preschool aged children are one of the biggest “vectors” of infection during the holiday season and winter, so I typically recommend that little ones in this age group avoid all contact with newborns and young babies, if possible.
5. Get immunized.
The best way to protect your newborn baby from infection is to protect yourself and your whole family! We recommend annual flu shots for all parents and caregivers of newborns. Covid-19 vaccination is also recommended. Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a contagious bacterial infection that can make newborns and infants extremely ill. If you are due for a pertussis booster vaccine, try to get it before the start of the holiday season. Infants are not fully protected from pertussis until they have received the entire 3-vaccine pertussis series (around 6 months of age).
Influenza, pertussis, and Covid-19 vaccines are all safe to receive when you are breastfeeding.
6. If you need to travel with a newborn during the holidays, be prepared with extra supplies.
Include the following:
- Extra diapers/nappies, wipes, and feeding supplies so that you are prepared in situations such as airline delays, car trouble, or finding that local stores are closed for the holidays.
- An ample supply of hand sanitizing wipes and wipes to clean off shared surfaces, diaper changing mats, pacifiers, and other baby supplies.
- Consider having a small newborn “medical kit,” or first aid kit, with you at all times that includes a baby thermometer, high quality diaper cream/ointment, infant’s Tylenol, a medication dropper, a nasal suction device (either a bulb syringe or nose Frida), and babies’ nasal saline drops or spray. These items can be very difficult to find in places like airports and stores that are open in the middle of the night, such as gas stations and convenience stores.
7. Limit your intake of alcohol while celebrating the holidays with a newborn.
Alcohol passes into breast milk and affects babies. Alcohol is metabolized in about 1 to 3 hours, so to be safe, wait about 2 hours after one drink (or 2 hours for each drink consumed) before you nurse your baby or pump. This time frame should safely allow the alcohol you consumed to be metabolized. It’s recommended to stick to one to two alcoholic drinks per week, at most, when you are breastfeeding. One drink equals 5 oz. of wine, 12 oz. of beer, or 1.5 oz. of distilled spirits.
Please keep in mind that all of the above are suggestions, not rules! Remember there is no perfect time to travel with your baby. I hope that the information I shared helps you to navigate the holidays with a newborn and empowers you to make the best decisions possible for you and your new baby. Happy Holidays!