What to Do When Baby Gets Sick
Fever, diarrhea, vomiting -- it’s all scary stuff when your tiny patient can’t talk and you don’t know what’s wrong. Photo: Getty Images
Even though millions of people do this whole parenting thing every day, you may feel pretty inept at handling common symptoms at first. “There’s a steep learning curve,” says Cheryl Wu, MD, a pediatrician in New York City. “We’re not always around babies much before we have our own, and there’s a general anxiety that parents feel about their children’s well-being.” Use this cheat sheet to help calm some of your worries.
How to treat it Use natural ways to ease baby’s symptoms. “Running a humidifier can be helpful, and so can using a bulb syringe to help remove the mucus,” says Alanna Levine, MD, a pediatrician at Orangetown Pediatric Associates in Tappan, New York. “Cold and cough medicines aren’t effective or safe for babies.”
What other moms do “We get the vaporizer going, tilt the mattress, suck the snot out, use saline and do vapor baths.” -- mamablase1
When to call the doctor If baby is working harder to breathe -- for example, her belly is going in and out very fast, you can see nasal flaring or there’s pulling at the chest -- make the call. If there’s a fever, see the fever section.
How to treat it Wait it out for now -- if it just happens once or twice, things are probably okay.
What other moms do “My baby had a GI virus with no fever or other symptoms, so there really wasn’t much to do other than watch his hydration and snuggle him.” -- Jenna D.
When to call the doctor Pick up the phone if baby isn’t acting right or not responding well, or if he vomits more than a few times. Also call if you see signs of dehydration, including dried lips or fewer wet diapers than normal. “Babies get dehydrated quickly,” Wu says. If baby’s puke is greenish, yellowish or has blood, or if he can’t seem to keep anything down, he’ll need to see a doctor.
How to treat it Suction baby’s nose with the bulb syringe to get rid of any postnasal drip that could be causing the cough. Moisture from the humidifier or a running shower can thin mucus too.
What other moms do “I put Vicks BabyRub on the bottom of her feet at night. It seems weird, but it’s worked amazingly well!” -- Regina M.
When to call the doctor You’ll want to get your doctor on the line if you notice that baby is having any trouble breathing (signs: his rib cage shows when he breathes, he’s grunting or his nostrils flare), or if his lips turn a bluish color when he coughs. You should call anytime baby has a fever along with his cough.
How to treat it Give baby plenty of breast milk or formula to rehydrate him, says Preeti Parikh, MD, assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at the Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and pediatrician at Pediatrics of New York. Then watch baby closely to make sure he’s improving.
What other moms do “Our pediatrician had us switch formulas, and baby’s been great since.” -- BlondieBia21
When to call the doctor Get on the phone if there’s any blood or any mucus in baby’s poop, he has a high fever or has any signs of dehydration (mentioned above). If baby is dehydrated, he may need to receive IV fluids at the hospital.
How to treat it Be sure baby’s getting enough fluids here too. Some doctors recommend giving a small amount of prune juice or corn syrup, but ask first.
What other moms do “We used glycerin suppositories a few times per our doctor. We also gave baby water -- 1 ounce three times per day between feedings. That only helped temporarily. The cure-all was mixing 1 ounce of prune juice with 1 ounce of water every other day as needed.” -- KitKat307
When to call the doctor If baby is breastfed and less than one month old, call as soon as you notice. Or call if he’s stopped up for more than three days. It’s also worth a chat if baby’s very fussy or strains to poop for minutes.
How to treat it A rectal temperature that’s higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit is considered a fever for baby, Parikh says. (And yes, rectal is best.) It’s okay to give baby a dose of acetaminophen (Tylenol), but ibuprofen (Advil) isn’t recommended for babies under six months of age.
What other moms do “For a low fever, a lukewarm bath helps. And then I give baby a massage with baby lotion. I also dim the lights and play relaxing music to help calm her as I wait for her fever to go down.” -- Aubriana R.
When to call the doctor Always call the pediatrician if baby is under three months old, acts “out of it” or is very fussy. If the fever has lasted for more than 24 hours or is over 101 degrees, it could be serious, so you definitely want to touch base with the doctor to get her advice. She will likely want to check out baby in person.
How to treat it First, look for an explanation. Baby could be hungry, tired or need a diaper change. Check for fever or even a hair “tourniquet,” says Parikh, who explains: “Hairs can get wrapped around baby’s fingers or toes, or even a boy’s penis.”
Then, troubleshoot to see what will calm baby’s cries. Rock baby, walk him around your home, or try the baby swing. Burp him and bicycle his legs to help get rid of gas, in case that’s what’s making him uncomfortable. Is he teething? Try a cool teething ring or pacifier.
What other moms do “When my daughter is inconsolable, we swaddle her and walk her around with a pacifier in her mouth. Once she’s calm, we put her in her swing, still swaddled, and turn it on with white noise, and she’s out in less than five minutes.” -- Kari M.
When to call the doctor Phone the office if you’ve tried what seems like everything and there’s still uncontrollable crying, or if baby has other concerning symptoms. Wu says that if baby is crying a minimum of three hours per day, at least three days per week before she’s three months old, it’s likely colic.
It’s okay to call baby’s pediatrician anytime -- don’t feel like you need to wait or that you’re being an alarmist. “New parents call my office more frequently than experienced ones do, and I encourage them to,” Levine says. “Parents shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions. What can be answered in a few short minutes can save hours of worry.” Here’s the info she’ll want to know:
How old is baby?
Something as simple as a cold in the first three months is worth a visit, since babies under three months are particularly vulnerable. And a fever under eight weeks of age means a trip to the emergency room, if it’s outside of office hours.
How’s he acting?
When baby starts to seem off, keep track of how much he’s eating and sleeping, any noticeable difference in his mood and how often you need to change his diaper. If any of those four things are disrupted, say baby is excessively sleepy, he’s not as alert as he usually is, he’s super-cranky or he’s not peeing as much as normal, it’s worth taking baby to the pediatrician’s office. Difficulty breathing, lethargy and dehydration are also considered emergencies.
What are you worried about?
“If the answer is a variation of ‘I’m worried about the way he looks or breathes or acts,’ then that means a visit to the doctor or the ER,” says Wu. “If the answer is ‘I’m worried about his fever, but he looks okay to me,’ then he’s probably fine.” You may be new at this, but you do have instincts.
Once you’re sure it’s not an emergency, it’s okay to keep baby at home and do your best to ease his symptoms. Consult the doctor about anything you’re unsure of -- from Tylenol dosage to whether to use a warm- or cool-mist humidifier. “It’s always a good idea to seek guidance from a professional,” Levine says.
Plus, More from The Bump:
10 Ways to Soothe a Sick Baby
Mom's Intuition vs. Diagnosis
Signs You Should Break Up With Baby's Pediatrician
See More: Newborn Basics , Baby Basics
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Reminder: Medical info on The Bump is FYI only and doesn't replace a visit to a medical professional.