It’s a parent’s worst nightmare … you walk into the nursery to find your baby in his cot, covered in blood and lying next to a rat.
Single mother Larrissa Booth has worked and lived on a four-hectare property surrounded by cane farms at Murwillumbah on the NSW far-north coast for two years.
She knows these feelings all too well, living with her older son, Flint, 5, and 15-month-old Theodore in the middle of a mouse plague.
There has been a large increase in not only mice, but also rats, in the area.
Ms Booth had just finished sleep school in Brisbane with Theodore, then five months old, when on the second night after they got back, he started crying in his cot.
“At the time, we were told to let him cry it out for a couple of minutes and then go in and check on him,” she said.
“The cries got really bad and I thought, ‘I’ll go in and check on him’ and I went in there and there was blood everywhere.
“As I scooped him up, a giant rat was right there. I couldn’t believe it.
“There was blood everywhere, all down his clothes.
“Unfortunately, I was by myself. So, I had to put him in the car seat and drive to the neighbours and the blood kept coming out and, in a panic, I got the neighbour to come with me and we [went] to the hospital.”
Ms Booth said, at first, the hospital staff were suspicious.
“They cleaned up the wound and you could definitely see four incision marks from the teeth, two in each spot,” she said.
“It just got above his eyebrow and then on the top of his forehead.
“He had to go on antibiotics, they had to give it a good clean and we had to go up a couple of times a week just to make sure that the wound was actually healing properly.
“They just said that we were very lucky we actually had had his needles, tetanus shots and his last vaccination, which was good.
“It didn’t actually get into the eye socket … otherwise the chance of infection would be a lot worse.
“He slept in bed with me for a long time, which didn’t help his sleep schedule, but I felt a lot safer knowing that he was here with me because I never caught the rat.
“It’s only now that I wait a couple of seconds before I’ll go back in and check [when he cries] but I make sure his room is pretty sealed up now.
“We’ve even put silicone around Theo’s windows – I wasn’t taking any chances.”
Ms Booth said she wished she’d been given information or access to resources about infants and rodents when she gave birth.
“I’m hoping that the government, or something, can put out an article, the hospitals could even, especially in country towns, make it a little bit more spoken about,” she said.
“Especially when you get your newborn baby packs and stuff like that.
“I know it’s not something nice that you want to read and envision, but at least it’s there and you’ve got the knowledge.”
NSW Farmers Association president James Jackson said there had been several reports from farmers of increased rat numbers across NSW in the past six months.
Expecting during a plague
Kristy Rose is due to give birth to her baby boy on June 22.
She lives on an old farm at Rouchel in NSW’s Hunter region with her partner, three children and hundreds, if not not thousands, of mice.
“If you leave a dummy on the kitchen bench or … on the coffee table, you know a mouse is going to touch it,” she said.
“You know it’s going to happen when you have a new baby and it’s even scarier because you don’t know what germs they’re going to leave behind.”
Ms Rose has spent countless hours cleaning and jamming steel wool in vents and cracks.
“You still wake up and you open the door to the kitchen and there are mice – you’ve got all your food in plastic tubs,” she said.
“When you go and get a pair of undies out of the drawer or a t-shirt for your child and a mouse runs up your arm, it’s disgusting.”
Ms Rose says she had spent large amounts of money, despite already having essential items.
“I’ve had to buy a bassinet with a zip-in mosquito net over it,” she said.
“Everything is packed away and I just have the bassinet out and everything in tubs – even the baby’s clothes are in the tubs.
“I’ve even got the nappies in tubs because the mice do get in through the nappies, which is quite disturbing itself.”
Ms Rose said she had no idea how to protect her newborn once she brought him home.
“I’ve had messages from people asking me if I want to stay at their place when I have the baby, but how can I stay at someone’s place when you’ve got a farm and animals to look after?”
She’s asking the state government to provide more information and targeted mental health services.
“Like, what to look out for if my kid gets sick and I think it’s a common cold or a tummy bug, whether or not it’s caused by the mice or anything like that,” Ms Rose said.
“I think there needs to be more of a counselling thing for mothers, where they can go and talk about it because, when you are isolated on a farm and have little children, you feel like you’re alone.”
Role of the health system
The ABC approached NSW Health for a comment on what the department was doing to assist mothers raising babies in areas overrun with mice and rats.
In response, the department encouraged people to find out more about infections transferred from rodents at its website.
“Infections can spread through direct contact with infected mice or through contact with soil, food or water contaminated by infected mice,” a spokesperson said.
The spokesperson said the best way to keep newborns safe was to keep rodenticides out of reach in a locked container, seal gaps and food, clean messy food spills immediately, wash hands before preparing food or milk and ensure baby’s skin is covered with long sleeves, pants and socks.
NSW Health said that, if someone is concerned a rodent has scratched or bitten a baby, they should clean the area with soap and water, dry the area, apply antibiotic cream, provide a clean bandage and seek medical advice.
“As the wound heals, keep an eye out for signs of infection,” a spokesperson said.
“In a newborn, watch out for skin that is warm to the touch, for redness or swelling, a fever above 37.5c or an unusual cry.
“See a doctor immediately if these signs develop.”
NSW Health didn’t address suggestions that hospitals include relevant information in baby packs, nor respond to a question about whether it was working on any projects to help mothers in this situation.
Near enough, is good enough
CEO of Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia, Julie Borninkhof, said it was important that struggling mums reached out to services already available, such as its national counselling helpline [1300 726 306].
“The tools and resources people choose to engage with don’t need to be directed towards a mice plague,” she said.
“They just need to be directed towards the anxiety and the stress and the depression that may be resulting from this overwhelming experience.
“Near enough is good enough in times like this,” Ms Borninkhof said.
“As long as you’re not hurting your baby and you’re providing the basic needs, you know the baby will thrive.”