Caring for Infant Bacterial Infections

Lynsey Keep, RN

As a result of vulnerable immune systems in the first twelve months of life, infants are slightly more susceptible to illness, and infant care for bacterial infections is often necessary.

Bacterial Infections: Minor and Major

Not unlike adults and older children, it is not uncommon for newborn infants to be exposed to seasonal illnesses throughout the year. Bacterial infections are the most common and can present as:

  • Colds - Colds typically cause a runny nose and elevated temperature in some children.
  • Respiratory tract infections - Presenting as a cough which usually produces coloured sputum (phlegm).
  • Gastro-intestinal infections - Some diarrhea and vomiting bugs are caused by unpleasant bacteria which are passed via the digestive tract.
  • Urinary infections - Certain pre-existing conditions can make infants more susceptible to urinary infections.
  • Bacterial meningitis - Less common than the above ailments; however, due to weakened immune systems infants are at a greater risk of problems such as meningitis. Meningitis is potentially fatal if not diagnosed early and medical treatment given.
  • Sepsis - Unlike any of the other infections mentioned above sepsis caused by bacterial infection tends to be a secondary problem of an existing infection elsewhere in the body. Sepsis is caused when infection is passed into the blood stream, commonly when the primary infection is left untreated and becomes complex. Extensive hospital treatment is then required, and in severe cases death may occur.

Newborn infants have poor defense mechanisms and can become unwell very easily and very quickly, particularly in the first year of life. They, therefore, rely on parents to be vigilant and act appropriately when illness first occurs.

Infant Care for Bacterial Infections: An Essential Role

Parents of newborn infants are often extremely cautious anyway when it comes to the health of their precious baby. Fortunately, this can only be a bonus when an infant becomes unwell with a bacterial infection. When an infection occurs, it is not known how serious the illness may become; therefore, prompt treatment is required to ensure the infection does not worsen. There are often very obvious signs that an infant is not well, particularly when an infection is present.

Elevated Temperature

Parents are usually familiar with how their infant feels to touch. An infant with an elevated temperature may well feel hotter than normal, particularly around the head and trunk. It is a good idea to keep a thermometer in the house to be able to check on the actual temperature, particularly if symptoms are associated with others which are of concern. Parents should also ensure that there is not a more obvious cause of the elevated temperature. When a baby is teething, for instance, he is likely to have an associated fever. Treatment for a high temperature will be dependant on age, and medication should only be given as per instruction on the bottle. It is best that advice is sought by a qualified pharmacist, particularly if a parent has not given it before. It is also a good idea to keep the child cool by removing non-essential layers of clothing and applying damp cloths to the body if the temperature becomes worryingly high.

If the temperature does not subside after administering medicine and 'cooling' the infant by other methods, then it is essential to seek medical advice.

Altered Feeding Pattern

It is not uncommon when an infant has a bacterial infection that appetite and feeding regimen may alter. Particularly if the infant has an elevated temperature, he may be lethargic and sleep more, therefore are less likely to demand his usual feeds. Feeding less is not a major concern providing the infant is receiving adequate hydration. It may simply be a case of smaller feeds being given more often. The most obvious sign of poor infant hydration is the absence of wet diapers, or diapers which need changing less often, indicating that the infant has less fluid 'on-board' to excrete and therefore being at increased risk of dehydration.

If the infant gradually demands less feeds over a period of time or vomits following a feed, then it is advisable to seek medical help. In cases of serious infection, infants may require hospitalization in order to receive the required fluid via an intravenous infusion.

Lethargy and Altered Sleep Pattern

For a tiny infant even a minor bacterial infection can have serious effects, and infant care for bacterial infections requires parents to observe for even subtle changes, such as altered sleep patterns.

It does not take long for an infant to establish a relatively accurate sleep pattern, and when unwell the amount of time an infant sleeps is likely to increase. To a degree this is acceptable as their bodies become tired trying to fight the infection. However if the child becomes listless and less responsive than usual then it is likely the infection is taking over and medical treatment is required quickly,.

Irritability and Altered Behavior

As with sleep patterns, most parents of newborns know their children fairly well. If the infant becomes restless and irritable, and hunger, pain or a wet or dirty diaper have been excluded then it is likely there is a more complex reason for the change in behavior. This behavior may be associated with other symptoms detailed above, or it may be an isolated problem. Regardless of this, it is essential, if no cause can be attributed to the behavior that medical advice is sought.

You Can Never be Too Cautious

Infant care for bacterial infections can be as simple as adequate fluid maintenance and temperature control. Often if the infection worsens, the need for antibiotic medication is necessary, which fortunately infants respond to very quickly.

It is never a problem, particularly with a newborn or first child, to be overcautious about the health of the child. If it is suspected that the infant has an infection, even if symptoms are non-specific, then it is advisable to have the child checked out by a medic. Serious illnesses such as meningitis can 'take hold' of an infant very quickly, and therefore prompt assessment and treatment is crucial to the life of the child. If there is no obvious infection then equally so parents can be reassured and take the infant home with full peace of mind. Most importantly parents should never assume or take risks with the health of their newborn.

Caring for Infant Bacterial Infections