Sick baby? When to seek medical attention
Date Updated: 02/25/2022
When you have a baby occasional infections and fevers may be inevitable. But even parents who have experience with sick babies can have trouble distinguishing normal fussiness and mild illnesses from serious problems. Here's when to contact your health care provider — and when to seek emergency care — for a sick baby.
When to contact your baby's health care provider
An occasional illness is usually nothing to worry about in an otherwise healthy baby — but sometimes it's best to contact your health care provider. Look for these signs and symptoms:
- Changes in appetite. If your baby refuses several feedings in a row or eats poorly, contact your health care provider.
- Changes in behavior. If your baby is unusually sleepy or hard to awaken, tell your health care provider right away. Let your health care provider know if your baby seems floppy or if your baby is crying more than usual or is very hard to console.
- Tender navel or penis. Contact your health care provider if your baby's umbilical area or penis suddenly becomes red or starts to ooze or bleed.
Fever. If your baby is younger than 3 months old, contact your health care provider for any fever.
If your baby is 3 to 6 months old and has a temperature up to 102 F (38.9 C) and seems sick or has a temperature higher than 102 F (38.9 C), contact your health care provider.
If your baby is 6 to 24 months old and has a temperature higher than 102 F (38.9 C) that lasts longer than one day but shows no other signs or symptoms, contact your health care provider. If your baby also has other signs or symptoms — such as a cold, cough or diarrhea — you might contact your health care provider sooner based on their severity.
If your baby has a fever that lasts for more than three days, contact your health care provider.
- Diarrhea. Contact your health care provider if your baby has more than three stools that are especially loose or watery.
- Vomiting. Occasional spitting up, the easy flow of a baby's stomach contents through his or her mouth, is normal. Vomiting occurs when the flow is forceful — shooting out inches rather than dribbling from the mouth. Contact your health care provider if your baby vomits forcefully after feedings or your baby hasn't been able to keep liquids down for eight hours.
- Dehydration. Contact your health care provider if your baby cries with fewer tears, has significantly fewer wet diapers or has a dry mouth. Also contact your health care provider if your baby's soft spot appears sunken.
- Constipation. If your baby has fewer bowel movements than usual for a few days and appears to be struggling or uncomfortable, contact your health care provider. If you think your baby is constipated and your baby is vomiting or has a distended abdomen, call your health care provider.
- Colds. Contact your health care provider if your baby has a cold that interferes with his or her breathing, has symptoms that last longer than 10 days, has ear pain, or has a cough that lasts more than one week.
- Rash. Contact your health care provider if a rash appears infected or if your baby suddenly develops an unexplained rash — especially if it's accompanied by a fever.
- Eye discharge. If one or both of your baby's eyes are red, swollen or leaking mucus, contact your health care provider.
If you're worried about your baby's symptoms, don't hesitate to call your health care provider. After hours, you might be able to use a 24-hour nurse line offered through the doctor's office or your health insurance company.
When to seek emergency care
Seek emergency care for:
- Bleeding that can't be stopped
- Large or deep cuts or burns or smoke inhalation
- Major mouth or facial injuries
- A head injury that is followed by any changes in consciousness, confusion, a bad headache, pupil size changes or vomiting several times
- Near drowning
Other signs or symptoms that require emergency care include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Unconsciousness, acting strangely, or becoming more withdrawn and less alert
- Skin or lips that look blue or gray
- Increasing or severe persistent pain or irritability
Prepare for emergencies in advance by asking your baby's doctor during a 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 and addresses handy.
Be ready to answer questions
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?
- 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, volume or consistency of bowel movements?
- Changes in your baby's temperature. What's your baby's temperature? How did you take it and at what time?
- Home remedies and medications. Does your baby take any over-the-counter or prescription medications? If so, what, how much and when? If you suspect your child ingested poison or medications, bring the bottle with you.
- Possible exposures. Is anyone in your household ill or, if relevant, at your baby's child care center? Have you traveled with your baby recently? Are family members current on immunizations, such as the COVID-19 vaccine and the flu?
Before you contact your baby's health care provider, make sure you're prepared to jot down any instructions. Have your pharmacy's contact information ready, too.
Being prepared will save you and your baby's health care provider time during a phone call, office visit or emergency situation.