For the first three months of my daughter’s life, we kept her sequestered from the world. No baby showers, no family gatherings, no baby play dates. The wonderful result of this self-enforced hermitage was that she never got sick… No colds, no coughs, no anything.
Unfortunately, we did have to take her out eventually, and the world quickly got even. Virtually every time we went to a bounce house or birthday party or other gatherings, our daughter caught something and brought it home. Not that we didn’t try to prevent this. We became germophobes! Spend a few months passing nasty colds round and round your house, and you would be too.
Still, it didn’t matter. No amount of Germ-X or hand washing seemed to stave off the infections. So, against my best efforts, I’ve become something of an expert on what to do when your baby gets sick.
How to tell if your baby is sick
One of the challenges of handling a sick baby is that there’s no early warning system. They can’t tell you about the dry throat or throbbing headache or most of a cold’s precursors. Unfortunately you will probably notice one or more of these symptoms when it’s already too late:
- Runny nose. Often the first symptom, this one always carries a sense of dread. Is it just from that recent tantrum or a chance event (allergies)? Sadly, it usually isn’t.
- Congestion. The opposite problem, in a way. We often notice it because a baby breathes audibly or snores, or has trouble drinking bottles because he can’t breathe through his nose. The same holds true with a pacifier.
- Fever. You may notice this when you touch or hold your baby, but you may not. Some babies always feel warm to me. The most reliable way to tell is with an infrared thermometer. Above 100.3 is a fever. Below is not.
How to help a sick baby
The moment you realize that your baby is sick, prevention probably isn’t an option. Instead, you can only take steps to make your baby comfortable and help him recover quickly.
- Handle the runny nose. You will need many, many tissues and the onus is on you to use as necessary. Expect your little one to turn and/or run away, because they learn to hate this almost as much as you do. Keep tissues everywhere, so that there’s always one within reach. The softer, the better.
- Help with congestion. Your options are limited here, because babies don’t learn to blow their nose until 2 or 3 years old. Saline drops up each nostril (especially before bedtime) seem to help. If you have the stomach for it, there is a more direct approach. It’s called a baby aspirator: a tube that lets you suck the snot directly out of your little one’s nose.
- Sooth coughs and sore throats. Since you can’t give babies cough drops or syrup, a humidifier might be the best alternative. The moist air soothes an itchy or sore throat, and some machines offer a comforting hum as well. Cool-air humidifiers are finally reasonably priced these days; I don’t know if they offer any medical benefit, but they’re safer to have in the nursery.
- Treat the fever and aches. If you’re the kind of parent who believes in modern medicine (which I certainly am), a little bit of baby Tylenol or Advil goes a long way. Either medicine (acetaminophen or ibuprofen) both reduces fever and helps relieve your little one’s achy body. If you do this, use the dropper that comes with the medicine and take your time. Having someone hold the little one helps. Put the dropper inside your baby’s cheek and give a bit at a time — you want your baby to drink it willingly, and this stuff tends to taste good so they usually will.
Intervention is good, but at the end of the day all you can do is make your little one comfortable. The infection will run its course; one day your little one will wake up from a nap with a dry nose, clear throat, and very happy mood. The cough can sometimes linger for a couple of weeks.
When to call the pediatrician
Let me take this moment to remind you that I’m a parent, not a medical expert. Please don’t take my parenting tips for medical advice! However, if your baby takes more than a few days to recover from the cold, or the symptoms seem severe, or you take a temperature of 103 degrees (F) or higher, it’s probably time to go to the pediatrician. They may be able to help, they may not, but you almost certainly won’t regret the trip.