When a new baby is born, it often prompts images of gathering -- families coming together around the new mother and child, with friends joining in. But fears of infection may draw an end to that tradition, as hospitals weigh the decision whether to allow children to be near newborns and pregnant women at all.
With a potential outbreak of swine flu on the horizon, many hospitals are becoming more cautious when it comes to protecting newborn babies and their mothers -- fears that have prompted a complete ban of children from areas of one hospital where newborns and their mothers are cared for -- and that have caused more intense deliberations about the issue in other facilities.
"For pregnant women, there is a much higher risk associated with H1N1, and they wanted to err on the side of safety for pregnant women," said Mike Green, the chief executive officer of Concord Hospital in New Hampshire, which imposed the outright ban.
"You could argue that this is a preponderance of caution, but that's OK," he said. "Obviously, this was a reluctant decision on our part, but something the clinicians felt was important that we tried to provide the safest environment possible."
Immediate family of a new baby -- including spouses, grandparents and siblings of the baby -- over 18, are still welcome to visit. The hospital plans to review the policy on a monthly basis.
While an outright ban on healthy child visitors does not appear to be the norm yet, hospitals have indicated that it is a step they would consider over time.
"As an obstetrician, while I recognize the importance of the 'family' event and being family friendly, the most important concern I have is the health of the pregnant woman and later, her newborn," said Dr. Ashlesha Dayal, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. "A restriction on visitors, during the hospitalization, to me, seems like a small inconvenience, in comparison to having a pregnant woman or newborn baby become seriously ill or worse because a 'chance' was taken."
"We have not made more restrictions in our birth center areas. However, we're evaluating the situation on a daily basis," said Leslie Heying, a spokeswoman for St. Luke's Hospital in Sioux City, Iowa. She says in their neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) " we are restricting visitors who are 14 years-old or younger."
She added that children are not yet restricted from seeing healthier newborns at the hospital.
She also noted that everyone is screened for influenza.
"If somebody is exhibiting signs and symptoms of the flu, we ask that they stay out of the NICU area and they can come back 24 hours later [for rescreening]," said Heying.
Such screening instead of a full ban is the policy at some hospitals, and the full ban may be seen as an overreaction.
"Though these limitations may appear by face value to be of merit, the indiscriminate ban is rather uncalled for at this time of swine flu," said Dr. Salih Yasin, director of obstetrics at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.
Yasin said a better approach would be to monitor patients who visit to see if any appear to have symptoms, and then test those particular patients before allowing them to see the new baby and mother.