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The Symptoms of a Sick Baby; When to Call the Doctor?

Reviewed by James Brann, M.D.

Before You Call the Doctor, Check Your Baby's Temperature

Learn how to tell when your baby is sick and you should call the doctor.

Every caring parent wants a healthy baby. You may feel overprotective at every little change in your infant. Maybe your baby is crying more than usual, or your baby's skin looks a little pale. Whether you are a first-time parent or an experienced one, it can be difficult to distinguish between mild illnesses (such as the common cold) and more serious problems.

Always trust your instincts when it comes to your sick baby. If you feel uneasy about something, don't hesitate to call the pediatrician.

You should head to the emergency room immediately if your baby experiences seizures, has difficulty breathing, is unresponsive, has blood in his or her urine, is in severe pain, or if his skin or lips are blue or purple.

How to Check your Baby’s Temperature

Babies are wiggly! They do not sit still very long, especially when you are trying to do something to them that they do not like. Getting a temperature check is one of those things. The baby may squirm, cry or pull a fit, making it seem impossible to get an accurate reading.

Here are the different types of thermometers:

  • Rectal thermometer: First, turn the digital unit on until the display is ready. Gently lubricate the tip with a bit of petroleum jelly, but not too much. Lie the baby down on its back, as if you were changing a diaper. In fact, you can pretend you are changing the diaper so that the baby will not realize what you are doing. Gently insert the thermometer about ½ an inch, but stop if the baby starts kicking or screaming. If this happens, you may need to try taking the baby’s temperature orally. After the digital thermometer beeps, you should have an accurate reading.

  • Armpit thermometer: After you turn the thermometer on, place the tip under the baby’s armpit underneath the skin. Try to hold the child’s arm down to keep from flailing, or you will have to start all over again. The thermometer must stay firmly in place until it beeps, and then you should have an accurate reading.

  • Ear thermometer: Be very gentle when placing the tip of the thermometer in the baby’s ear. It would be good to hold the child’s head still, as you do not want to damage the eardrum. Make sure to follow the directions and keep a safe distance from the ear canal, but hold it firmly in place until it beeps. The number will read on the display.

  • Oral thermometer: Most of us are familiar with the type of oral thermometers that simply insert underneath the tongue. If the baby is too young, this is difficult. This type of thermometer works best for children who can follow your instructions and sit still long enough to get a reading.

  • Temporal artery thermometer: This is a newer type of technology that works by gently sweeping the thermometer across your baby’s forehead. This might be one of the easiest of all of the above methods, at least for a parent.

Video: How to Know When to Take a Baby to the Emergency Room

What if the Baby’s Temperature is high?

If the baby’s temperature is above normal, your child may have a fever. It is not necessary to drop everything and call the pediatrician unless the baby’s temperature is above 100.4 F or 38 C, or greater. If you do call, make sure to tell the doctor which method you used to check the baby’s temperature. Fevers are one way that a baby fights off infections, so they are more common than we realize and unless it is alarming to you, then do as your motherly instinct guides you to do.

You may be able to give your baby an over-the-counter fever reducer, depending on the age. Ask the pharmacist for recommendations and make sure you do not overdose on the children’s medicine or give your baby any dose recommended for an older child. Read the instructions. Acetaminophen in a small dose is often okay for babies until six months of age, and then after that an ibuprofen such as Children’s Motrin or Advil should be okay. Again, follow the recommendations.

Also, make sure your baby gets plenty of fluids. If your baby gets dehydrated, the fever could worsen. If you have any concerns, call the doctor and ask what to do. It is always better to be safe than sorry if you are genuinely worried, but it is important not to panic over every little sniffle and sneeze your child develops. Babies do get sick, it is inevitable. Keep a thermometer on hand for good measure!

Baby Health Section

When to Call the Pediatrician?

Appetite changes: If your newborn is refusing several feedings in a row, or he or she is eating poorly, you should contact your baby's doctor.

Dehydration: Call your doctor right away if your baby doesn't have a wet diaper after six hours, if your baby's soft spot seems to be sinking, if your baby's skin is cool or clammy, or if your baby has dry lips or mouth. These could all be signs of dehydration.

Diarrhea: If your baby's stool is loose or watery, you should call your doctor.

Vomiting: Spitting up a little after being fed is normal, but if your baby starts to throw up large portions of his or her meals, you should call your doctor. The pediatrician also needs a call if your baby is spitting up bile (greenish fluid).

Mood changes: Although fussiness and crying are often common in babies, if you notice that your baby is always irritable or has inconsolable crying spells, call your doctor.

Behavioral changes: If your baby is normally happy and smiling, but suddenly starts to act differently (like being more fussy or more attention than normal), you may want to call the doctor.

Fever: Mild fevers are usually harmless, but you should always contact your doctor if your baby has any fevers. For infants older than 3 months, if he or she has a temperature that is lower than 101F, make sure he or she gets plenty of fluids and rest. If his or her temperature is higher than that, call your doctor.

Penis and umbilical irritation: If your baby's umbilical area or his penis becomes red and inflamed, bleeds, or has other unusual characteristics, call your doctor right away.

Eye discharge: If your baby's eyes become pink, are red, or start leaking mucus, you need to call your doctor.

Rashes: Babies often get rashes, but you should call your doctor if the rash is accompanied with fever, bleeding or swelling, or oozing.

Sepsis in Newborns

A serious infection of the blood, which affects the entire body, is called sepsis. It may be life threatening, and needs to be treated immediately.

Sepsis can happen to newborn babies, to children or to adults. When sepsis occurs in babies under one month old, it’s called sepsis in newborn babies. You may hear your doctor refer to it as neonatal sepsis.

The information below all concerns newborns that were delivered after pregnancy week 34:

Symptoms

  • Breathing trouble/breathing too fast

  • Fever (may also have a low or normal body temperature)

  • Vomiting

  • Not feeding as much

  • Sleeping more

  • Jaundice (baby’s skin or white part of the eye looks yellowish)

  • Lips and fingertips look a little blue

Make sure you call your baby’s doctor right away if your baby has any of these symptoms, or isn’t acting normal.

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