When your baby is sick or seems to be, your priorities change fast. That’s especially true if you’re a new parent, still learning how to decipher your child’s cries and settling into a reasonable sleeping pattern, because now — on top of the stress of taking care of a young child — you’re worried about their health and whether you need to make a visit to your pediatrician’s office. Babies can contract any number of maladies, and because their immune systems are still maturing, the Cleveland Clinic notes that they’re especially susceptible to viruses and bacterial illnesses. That includes everything from stomach bugs to the flu and RSV, all of which can become serious when infants struggle to fight them off.
So, as a parent, that means it’s important to pay close attention to your baby’s health. That includes keeping them up to date on vaccines and limiting their exposure to other people, the Cleveland Clinic says, such as asking visitors to wash their hands before touching your child. But when it comes to the key symptoms to watch out for, how can you tell when your baby is just fussy and tired or when they may have a cold starting? And even more important, how can you tell when your baby is really sick and needs prompt medical attention?
Always Speak to Your Doctor About Baby Sickness Concerns
Before we start, a word of caution from the experts. Jennifer Miles, MD, a pediatrician with St. Tammany Pediatrics, tells SheKnows that while there are certain symptoms of illness in babies, this subject is pretty broad. The lists below are definitely not all-inclusive, so if your baby is exhibiting symptoms that don’t match what we have here, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in the clear. You should always speak with your doctor about symptoms to watch out for and contact them if you have questions or concerns.
“Parents should contact their pediatrician for instructions regarding an acute illness,” Dr. Miles explains. “Having a ‘medical home’ with a pediatrician that knows your child will provide the best care.”
With that in mind, here are some symptoms of sickness in babies that you should look out for.
Baby Illness: When to Go to the Doctor
Dr. Miles listed some of the signs and symptoms that would warrant a doctor’s visit. They can include:
Fever. According to Mayo Clinic, you should speak to a doctor if your baby has a temperature of 100.3 degrees F or higher if they’re under 3 months old; a temperature of 102 degrees F or higher if they’re 3 to 6 months old; or a temperature higher than 102 degrees F if they’re 6 to 24 months old.
Repeated diarrhea or vomiting
Blood streaks in the stool
Irritability. “It is normal to have short periods of crying, but prolonged crying can be from pain,” Dr. Miles explains.
Unusual fussiness or drowsiness
Signs of ear infection, including pulling on the ears, irritability, or fever
Persistent green or yellow nasal discharge for more than seven days. “If there are signs of more severe illness — such as decreased feedings, wheezing, excessive coughing, or irritability — come in [to the doctor’s office] as soon as possible,” Dr. Miles says.
Decreased breast milk or formula intake
Persistent cough or mild wheezing. Dr. Miles notes that if there is additional distress, an ER visit may be needed.
Red, oozing, or bleeding navel, umbilical remnant, or penis
Any abnormal symptoms lasting longer than two weeks
Baby Illness: When to Seek Urgent or Emergency Care
While some of your baby’s illnesses can be treated during your doctor’s office hours, certain symptoms should be a warning sign that your infant needs urgent medical attention. Again, Dr. Miles emphasizes that this list is not all-inclusive, but if your baby is exhibiting these worrisome signs, you may want to take them to the ER.
New-onset seizures or convulsions
Respiratory distress, aka if your child has difficulty breathing or is breathing rapidly. This means more than 60 breaths per minute from birth through 6 weeks or more than 45 breaths per minute from 6 weeks through 2 years of age. Other signs of respiratory distress, according to Boston Children’s Hospital, may include grunting while exhaling; a bluish tinge around the face, inside of the lips, or on fingernails; widely-spread nostrils while breathing; your child’s chest sinking in below their neck with each breath; increased sweating; or wheezing.
Lethargy. This is defined as not waking with stimulation or appearing groggy and weak, says Dr. Miles.
Signs of severe dehydration. According to the National Health Service in the UK, symptoms of dehydration in babies may include: sunken eyes; drowsiness or irritability; a sunken soft spot (aka a fontanelle) on top of their head; not having a wet diaper in eight hours; or having few to no tears when they cry. (Note that a child may become dehydrated if they experience prolonged vomiting or diarrhea.)
Inability to keep down oral hydration solutions, such as Pedialyte, when vomiting.
Blood in the stool. Dr. Miles notes that if there are only streaks, this can be addressed in the doctor’s office, but larger amounts may require prompt medical attention.
Acute onset of tongue or lip swelling
Rash with purple spots accompanied by fever
The bottom line: sometimes infants exhibit symptoms that may worry you. These signs may not mean anything serious, but other times, your pediatrician may need to evaluate your baby. As a parent, it’s a good idea to not only go with your gut, but also to have a plan of action with your child’s pediatrician before these issues crop up.
It’s also a great idea to know how to best get ahold of your pediatrician for questions and any other methods you may be able to use to get your questions answered.
“If a parent has any question about whether something they observe may be important, they should feel free to contact their pediatrician,” Linda Keefer, MD, a pediatrician at St. Tammany Pediatrics, tells SheKnows. Dr. Keefer also notes that many pediatrics practices have an online portal through which a parent can communicate with their child’s doctor and can often upload photos of suspicious rashes or anything else they have a question about.
Not every illness is serious, but when it’s your baby, you definitely want to know when something may need to be looked at. This list of baby illness symptoms is a good starting point, but note that it is not all-inclusive, and you should always contact your pediatrician if you have any questions or concerns about your child’s health.
Image: J.P. Tanner/SheKnows.