Every parent wants a healthy baby, but occasional infections and fevers are inevitable. Even parents who have plenty of experience with sick babies can have a tough time distinguishing normal fussiness and mild illnesses from more-serious problems. Here's when to contact the doctor — and when to seek emergency care — for a sick baby.
When to contact your baby's doctor
An occasional illness is usually nothing to worry about in an otherwise healthy baby — but sometimes it's best to contact the doctor. Look for these signs and symptoms:
- Changes in appetite. If your baby refuses several feedings in a row or eats poorly, contact the doctor.
- Changes in mood. If your baby is lethargic or unusually difficult to rouse, tell the doctor right away. Also let the doctor know if your baby is persistently irritable or has inconsolable crying jags.
- Tender navel or penis. Contact the doctor if your baby's umbilical area or penis suddenly becomes red or starts to ooze or bleed.
- Fever. Mild fevers are common and usually harmless, but keep an eye on the thermometer. If your baby is younger than age 3 months, contact the doctor for any fever. If your baby is age 3 months or older and has an oral temperature lower than 102 F (38.9 C), encourage rest and offer plenty of fluids. Contact the doctor if your baby seems unusually irritable, lethargic or uncomfortable. If your baby has an oral temperature of 102 F (38.9 C) or higher, give your baby acetaminophen (Tylenol, others). Contact the doctor if the fever doesn't respond to the medication or lasts longer than one day.
- Diarrhea. Contact the doctor if your baby's stools are especially loose or watery.
- Vomiting. Occasional spitting up is normal. Contact the doctor if your baby spits up large portions of multiple feedings or vomits forcefully after feedings.
- Dehydration. Contact the doctor if your baby doesn't wet a diaper for six hours or longer, the soft spot on top of your baby's head seems to sink, or your baby cries without tears or has a dry mouth without saliva.
- Constipation. If your baby has fewer bowel movements than usual for a few days, contact the doctor.
- Colds. Contact the doctor if your baby has a cold that interferes with his or her breathing, lasts longer than two weeks, or is accompanied by severe coughing.
- Ear trouble. Contact the doctor if your baby doesn't respond normally to sounds or has fluid draining from his or her ears.
- Rash. Contact the doctor if a rash covers a large area, appears infected or if your baby suddenly develops an unexplained rash — especially if the rash is accompanied by a fever.
- Eye discharge. If one or both eyes are pink, red or leaking mucus, contact the doctor.
Trust your instincts. If you think you should contact the doctor, go ahead. After hours, you may be able to use a 24-hour nurse line offered through the doctor's office, clinic or your health insurance company.
When to seek emergency care
Seek emergency care for:
- Bleeding that can't be stopped
- Trouble breathing
- Head injuries
- A sudden lack of energy or inability to move
- Large cuts or burns
- Neck stiffness
- Blood in the urine, bloody diarrhea or persistent diarrhea
- Skin or lips that look blue, purple or gray
Prepare for emergencies by asking your baby's doctor during a scheduled checkup what to do and where to go if your baby needs emergency care. Learn basic first aid, including CPR, and keep emergency phone numbers handy.
Be ready to answer questions
Whether you contact your baby's doctor or seek emergency care, be prepared to help the medical staff understand what's happening with your baby. Expect questions about:
- Your baby's symptoms. What prompted you to seek medical attention for your baby? What are your specific concerns?
- Your baby's medical history. Does your baby have any known allergies? Are your baby's immunizations current? Does your baby have any chronic conditions? Be prepared to share details about your pregnancy and the baby's birth.
- Changes in your baby's feeding and bowel movements. Have you noticed changes in your baby's eating or drinking patterns, in the number of wet diapers, or in the number and consistency of bowel movements?
- Changes in your baby's temperature. Does your baby have a fever? What's your baby's temperature? How did you take your baby's temperature? At what time did you take your baby's temperature?
- Home remedies and medications. Have you tried any home remedies or given your baby any over-the-counter or prescription medications? If so, what, how much and when?
In addition, before you contact your baby's doctor make sure you're prepared to jot down any instructions. Be sure to have your pharmacy's contact information ready, too.
Being prepared will save you and your baby's doctor time — and stress — during a phone call, office visit or emergency situation.
Last Updated: 2011-02-05