As parents, we’re on high alert for things that could harm our child, and when you’re a mother of a new baby, your alert alarm is at an even higher frequency. You move far away from strangers at the first sound of a sneeze or a cough. You hear about illnesses at daycare and watch your baby vigilantly to see if they’re showing signs of whatever ailment in going around. You secretly wish the other baby’s parents would have just kept them at home. Until, of course, it’s your turn to be that parent and wonder how bad is it really to send a snotty baby to daycare after being cooped up in the house for multiple days.
No matter how many times you wash your hands, wash your baby’s hands, or wash the pacifier that falls on the floor, your baby probably will get sick at some point in their first year (but washing hands is still the first measure of prevention!). As much as we want to protect them from germs and illness, getting sick is a normal part of living in the new world outside your womb.
The first time your baby gets sick can be scary, and it’s so hard to see them unwell. Of course, babies can’t tell you what’s wrong, which makes illnesses all the more challenging. One of the first signs in babies is a change in behavior including lethargy and irritability. Maybe it’s only a nasty diaper rash or a questionable poop, but worry sets in quickly. If you haven’t already googled something to see if it’s normal, you probably will — or maybe you’ll text your friend a picture and ask what they think.
This article is not meant to add to your worries. Rather, we want to share what’s normal and what’s common for babies to catch in their first year with a few things to watch out for, especially as we enter cold and flu season. The following are common ailments you may have to deal with in the first year, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics online resource HealthyChildren.org.
Editor’s Note: This is not meant to substitute for medical advice, and we always recommend discussing concerns about your child with their pediatrician or medical care provider.
A mild fever can often accompany a cold or another virus. Fevers serve a purpose and are usually a positive sign that the body’s defenses are fighting infection. According to HealthyChildren.org, the following baby temperatures are considered normal:
- Rectal reading of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) or less
- Oral reading of 99 degrees Fahrenheit (37.2 degrees Celsius) or less
Call the pediatrician if your child is younger than 3 months (12 weeks) and has a temperature of 100.4°F (38.0°C) or higher or if fever rises above 104°F (40°C) repeatedly for a child of any age.
Most children have 8 to 10 colds in their first two years of life, sometimes even more if they have older siblings who bring home illnesses from daycare or school. For babies older than 3 months, most colds are a nuisance and can be managed at home with cool mist humidifiers, saline, and snuggles (reminder, babies under 12 months cannot ingest honey as an at-home cold remedy, as they are still at risk for botulism).
But “If a child is 3 months or younger, call the pediatrician at the first sign of illness. With young babies, it may be hard to tell when they are very sick,” says HealthyChildren.org. Worsening cough, wheezing, and quick breathing can also be signs of something more serious like bronchiolitis (an infection of the lungs), RSV, croup (swelling of the voice box), or pneumonia.
Blisters showing up in the mouth, fingers, palms of hands, soles of feet, and buttocks after cold symptoms can be signs of another common childhood illness, Hand, Foot, and Mouth disease (which is more common in summer and early fall).
Allergies, skin sensitivities, eczema, viruses, and even heat can cause skin rashes, diaper rashes, or other irritations. We spent the first weeks of my daughter’s life caking on diaper rash cream, covering it with petroleum jelly, and using only wet cloths and paper towels to gently wipe her after realizing she had a skin sensitivity to wipes (which went away eventually).
While minor skin irritations are common, it’s a good idea to call your pediatrician if the rash appears to be spreading, is bothering your baby, or is causing open blisters. You may even be referred to a pediatric dermatologist to further diagnose a chronic issue.
Ear infections are yet another common ailment babies (and parents) manage in the first year of baby’s life. Almost all children will have at least one ear infection by the time they are 5 years old and need to be diagnosed by a medical provider.
Symptoms in children 3 months or older can include pulling on ear and unexplained crying. Ear infections may also accompany a cold. Middle ear infections are generally considered frequent if there are three or more distinct episodes in six months or four or more episodes in a year. While frequent ear infections could lead to tubes or other treatments down the road, often antibiotics or over-the-counter recommendations can help ease the pain.
I remember the first week we tried the cry-it-out method to sleep train our daughter, I went into her room after 20 minutes to find the biggest blowout of all time. Cue the mom guilt as we began a week-long process of double-diapering as we tried to uncover what was upsetting her tum. Our pediatrician said sometimes the excess saliva from teething can cause the messy issue we were dealing with, and our daughter didn’t seem otherwise ill, but it worried us all the same.
Baby poop has a wide range of normal when it comes to color and consistency. A breastfed baby’s stools are light yellow, soft, or even runny, and they often contain small pieces that look like seeds. Babies who are formula-fed pass stools that are yellow to tan and about as firm as peanut butter. Call the doctor if stools are whitish and clay-like, watery and filled with mucus, or hard and dry. They should also not be black or bloody.
If your baby is younger than 3 months and has a fever as well as diarrhea, call your pediatrician at once. If your baby is older than 3 months and has had mild diarrhea with a slight fever for more than a day, monitor them for other signs of illness like lethargy or not wanting to feed. Babies can become dehydrated quickly, so if your baby hasn’t had a wet diaper in more than three hours, call the pediatrician.
My Sick Baby Toolkit