When to call your pediatrician: Dealing with infant illness

As a parent, you can feel helpless when your child is sick, especially an infant.  Not knowing what is wrong or what you can do leads to unease. Photo: Pospiech

SILVER SPRING, Md, February 24, 2012 – As a parent, you can feel helpless when your child is sick, especially an infant.  You want nothing more than to make your little one feel better, and not knowing what is wrong or what you can do leads to unease.

Since babies do not have the anti-bodies to all the common diseases and viruses that we come into contact with everyday, they are particularly vulnerable to illness.  When babies are born, they receive an initial boost of protection from the mother’s immune system, but after approximately 6 months, this benefit wears off.   While breastfeeding provides an added boost to a baby’s immune system, it is not enough to prevent all illness.    

Don’t panic!

This is the first rule to caring for a sick person, especially a baby.  When you have a baby who’s screaming uncontrollably while you’re tying to place a thermometer, staying calm is easier said than done, but it’s important. Panicking can cloud your thinking. It can make you over react, or get you so worked up you miss either a symptom or overlook a simple treatment. 

Know who to call

Sure, you call your pediatrician.  But what happens if your child starts running a high fever at 6 am on Saturday?  What about a baby who starts wheezing at 10pm on a weeknight?  Find out about after hours and weekend care.  Some pediatrician offices have one or two nights a week when they are open, or maybe a half day on Saturday.  Others have a number that you can call to get answers to questions during off hours.

If you have a sick child and your pediatrician is not available decide what other options you have.  Is your child having an allergic reaction to a food that is causing breathing difficulty? 

If so, an emergency room visit is probably the right call. But if your child is running a fever, you can probably take him to an urgent care center.  While urgent care centers have long waits, sometimes comparable to emergency rooms, but the bill is normally lower. 

Check locations and hours for such facilities in advance.

When is a fever a concern?

Fevers are a double edged sword.  They are the immune system’s way of fighting infection, but they make you feel worse.  Having a fever is not reason enough to panic or rush your child to the closest medical professional. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) considers any rectal temperature higher than 100.4º F or oral temperature higher than 99º F a fever. The AAP does recommend calling your pediatrician immediately if your infant is under 2 months of age and has a rectal temperature of 100.4 º F or higher.

Otherwise the guidelines for calling the pediatrician are a rectal temperature of 101º F for infants 3 to 6 months and higher than 103º F over 6 months.

Infant temperatures should be taken rectally to ensure the most accurate readings. Photo by Biol. Click to enlarge.

Fever is simply a symptom of an illness, and as such, should not be considered alone.  A sore throat, cough, rash, vomiting, diarrhea and earaches can all point to different conditions that might require additional treatment. Also, monitor your child’s activity level (fatigue), appetite and disposition

Fevers can lead to severe dehydration, so it’s important to ensure your child is getting sufficient fluids. This is especially important if your child is vomiting or has diarrhea. Keeping an eye on the baby’s diaper is a good way to monitor dehydration. 

If you notice your child hasn’t produced a wet diaper for more than 6 hours, chances are dehydration is the culprit. Other signs of dehydration include a sinking of the baby’s soft spot, crying without tears and a dry mouth.  If you suspect dehydration is a problem, call your doctor immediately.


Rashes are a common baby problem.  Everything from drool rashes to full body rashes associated with other illnesses are possible. The Mayo Clinic and WebMD both have helpful visual guides of common baby rashes.  Heat rash, diaper rash, and cradle cap don’t usually require attention from a medical professional, but a full body rash, especially one that accompanies a fever, should be inspected by a doctor. 

Diseases like fifth disease, impetigo, and scarlet fever not only need to be treated, they are contagious, so having a proper diagnosis is also important to the health of those your baby with whom your baby interacts.

Scarlet fever is strep with a rash. Like regular strep, it is contagious and requires treatment with antibiotics. Photo by Alicia Williams. Click to enlarge.

Consult a professional

It is important that you do not use this article, the websites referenced or any other web information as your sole source of information when your child is sick.  If you think your child has more than a simple cold, or if he has any of the above indicators of a more severe infection or illness, call your pediatrician.  Do not try to make a diagnosis yourself.

Also, do not give medicine, even over the counter medicine, to infants without first consulting your doctor and verifying the dose. Some medicines are not safe for children under a certain age or weight. Sometimes the medicine is safe, but at a smaller dose than listed on the box. 

Giving your baby the wrong medicine or the wrong dosage can cause additional problems and in severe cases can cause organ failure and even death. 

For example, the Food and Drug Administration warns against giving children under the age of 2 over-the-counter cough and cold medicines due to potentially life-threatening side effects.

Having a sick child is never fun, but it doesn’t have to be cause for hysteria.  Just remember, you and every other parent survived the childhood illnesses that are common today. 

Stay calm and follow your pediatrician’s advice and your baby will too.

Please note: As all children are individuals, please discuss your child with your pediatrician and make sure that you follow their advice and recommendations. 

Follow Brighid on Twitter at @BrighidMoret and receive updates on when new columns post on Facebook. Read more about first time parenting issues in Parenting the First Time Through at The Communities at The Washington Times.

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Brighid Moret

Brighid is a freelance writer and first time mother.  She holds an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University.  Find her on Facebook @Brighid Moret


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