Should every visitor who comes to see your newborn wash their hands? The rationale being that at that tender age, babies’ immune systems are not as strong hence leaving them vulnerable to infection. An infant’s environment needs to be kept as clean as possible and as recommended by medics, anyone handling the baby should always wash their hands first — preferably with soap. Many new parents follow this instruction to the letter, careful to uphold baby’s good health.
But then again, this diligent practice seems to be causing a rift among some family relations, as told through the experience of this young mother who recently hosted her elderly mother-in-law. The senior woman had paid a visit, more specifically to see her new grandson. It had been a tiresome eight-hour road trip from the village for the elderly lady who was overly excited at meeting the newborn. As soon as she entered her son’s house, she stretched out her arms to hold the baby who was comfortably nesting in his mother’s arms.
But her enthusiasm was abruptly cut short by her daughter-in-law’s reaction.
“Mother, if you could please wash your hands first,” the young mother said as she clung on to her little boy.
The elderly woman stepped back in shock. How dare the young woman accuse her of being filthy! She did not waste time in expressing her disappointment.
“Child, I have lived many years and held many babies, but no mother has ever ordered me to wash my hands before holding their baby. I can assure you that you are the first!” retorted the deeply offended woman.
Despite the young woman’s efforts to apologise while yet emphasizing the importance of washing hands before handling the newborn, the woman would hear none of it. She would not even listen to her son who intervened and tried to explain that it was routine in their house for all visitors to wash their hands with soap before holding their baby. The damage had already been done. She remained terribly upset. While she did eventually wash her hands, she left the following day, unexpectedly cutting short her intended week-long stay at her son’s place. She did not want to be hosted in a house where she felt unwelcome because of the germs she had ‘imported’ from the village.
But this couple is not alone. The issue of requesting all visitors — friends and family alike — to wash their hands before holding the baby is one that is stirring up conflict in many homes. The truth is that many people’s hands are not always clean — some don’t wash them after visiting the toilet, some come straight from the market, from smoking, from handling money, while some have just come from blowing their nose into a mucus-soaked handkerchief — and yet they all want to hold and touch your baby.
In many urban homes with infants, it has become so routine to be directed to a sink to wash your hands as soon as you enter the house, or alternatively be offered some hand sanitiser for the same purpose. It is almost normal. But what is normal may be interpreted as rude and disrespectful by other people, as is the case above.
So what are young parents who are keen on following this ‘medical’ advice supposed to do? How do you ask relatives — especially older ones — to wash their hands with soap before touching your baby without coming off as rude? This, especially in Africa where the elderly are revered and treated with utmost respect?
That is the dilemma that many young parents I’m seeing have today — choosing between the risk of having baby catching an infection, or cringing as they hand over their baby to visitors whose backgrounds they have no idea about, just to avoid offending them. Or is this just another case of ‘modern’ parents taking things too seriously?
The writer is a motherhood blogger at www.mummytales.com