When parents are caring for their sick baby, there are many questions they will likely have: how sick is my child? How can I help treat my child? Should I take my child to see the doctor? All of these are important questions, and we have done the work of answering them for you.
Signs of Illness
When your baby is sick, there are a few easy first indicators that parents should be able to identify.
Fever: A high temperature is the first clear indicator that your baby is sick. There are a few different ways to take your baby’s temperature, from digital thermometers to wearable monitors. It is essential to know that depending on the child’s age, the threshold for a high fever changes; that’s normal.
- Babies under 3 months: a fever of 100.4 is problematic; call your doctor
- Babies 3 months to 3 years: a fever of 102.2 or above is problematic; call your doctor
Anything that is below the high fever threshold is likely treatable at home. However, if you are still worried, call your doctor to be sure. You can read more about fevers in baby’s here.
Cough: When your child has a cough, there are different kinds of coughs that indicate they might be sick (Forster 2020):
- Dry coughing is usually an indicator of a cold or allergies. Generally, a dry cough serves to clear out the throat from postnasal drip or irritation in the throat.
- Wet coughing can be an indicator of a respiratory illness and can be accompanied by a bacterial infection. A wet cough can mean that there is phlegm or mucus in the airways; it’s why this type of cough is called “wet” and is symptomatic of a bacterial illness.
Having a cough or a fever are the first two clear indicators that your child is ill and often the first thing your doctor will ask.
When it comes to treating illness, there are a few things parents can do as a first line of defense option to helping their child recover:
- Drink fluids, being hydrated is important and can help children (and adults, too) recover from their illness.
- Infant/Children’s Tylenol is a great way to bring down your child’s fever. Be mindful of the dosage! The amount of Tylenol you can give to a child is based on weight.
- Humidifiers can help by keeping moisture in their air that your child is breathing. This will help keep their nasal passages from drying out as well, which will also help them breathe.
- Nasal aspirators (or bulb syringes) can help suction any mucous out of your baby’s nose if they cannot use a tissue effectively. While it’s not a great long-term solution to their illness, it can help alleviate some short-term symptoms that can help your child get back to bed or feel more comfortable.
- Saline solutions are a great way to loosen up any mucous-causing congestion in their nasal passage. A few saline solution drops work well, and because it’s a simple solution, you don’t need to worry about dosage; it’s perfectly safe.
Having some safe treatment options available can help parents confidently care for their child. However, there are absolutely some things you should NOT do to treat your sick child:
- DO NOT prop their mattress up at an incline for babies under the age of 6 months. The advice to help children sleep at an incline to alleviate congestion is not an altogether bad piece of advice, but it must be done safely. Infants under the age of 6 months don’t yet have the head stability or strength to correct their position if something were to go wrong, and this can lead to very serious suffocation risks.
- DO NOT give your baby cold medication under the age of two. While there are over-the-counter cold medications available, it is highly discouraged because it can be dangerous (Mayo Clinic 2019).
- DO NOT give your child any antibiotics without having first checked with their doctor. Your child’s doctor will be able to prescribe a safe antibiotic for your child and provide the proper dosage that they need.
- DO NOT let the baby sleep in your bed. Cosleeping is already an altogether heated topic among parents. However, having your baby sleep in bed when they are sick and possibly medicated can create a dangerous sleeping environment for the baby. I know that your baby likely sleeps better when they are with you; you’re where they are most comfortable! But be mindful of keeping their sleep environment safe.
When To See a Doctor
While being able to treat an illness at home is a good thing, there is a point when you need to bring your child in to see the doctor. Recognizing when to keep your child home and when to bring them in for treatment can be a complicated threshold to gauge. Here are some red flags to look out for that mean it’s time to bring your child in to see the doctor:
- A high fever, specifically one that is over the limit for their age, requires medical assistance. As a reminder, for babies under the age of 3 months, a fever over 100.4 requires medical assistance; babies and children ages 3 months to 3 years, a fever over 102.2 requires medical assistance. Don’t wait on something like this to see if the fever goes down; take them in for treatment.
- When there is difficulty breathing, seek medical assistance immediately. Coughing is one thing, but gasping for air is another. You don’t want this to be left unchecked so if you do notice that your child is having difficulty breathing, gasping for air, or short of breath, take them in to see the doctor immediately.
- If your child is having seizures, make sure they are in a safe position so they won’t harm themselves and call 9-1-1 or get help immediately. Seizures can be terrifying for both the parents and the child; don’t panic. You will want to make sure your child is on their side to prevent choking, make sure there are no objects around that could cause harm and do not open their mouth or put anything in their mouth. Seek medical assistance immediately (Jajou 2021).
Whether it is a fever, a cough, or something more serious, knowing how to help care for your sick child is something that every parent needs to know how to do. That said, if you are ever uncertain about if the symptoms your child is experiencing need medical treatment or not, air on the side of caution and take your child in to see a doctor — ease of mind matters for parents who are caring for their baby. You should always be confident in your parenting decision, especially when taking care of your sick baby.
Forster, E. (2020, May 27). How to Decode Your Baby’s Cough. Parents.
Mayo Clinic. (2019, May 21). Common cold in babies – Diagnosis and treatment – Mayo Clinic.
Jajou, J. (2021, April 9). What Are Infant Seizures? How Do I Know If My Baby Is Having One? HIE Help Center.