Common baby illnesses
When looking at your newborn baby for the very first time, you’ll probably be immediately struck by how tiny and delicate they seem. The surge of joy and exhilaration in those first precious moments may quickly be matched by the sudden realisation of the huge responsibility you now carry for their health and safety.
While your baby was inside your uterus (womb) they were, to a large extent, protected from the common germs and infections that are constantly around us. However, from birth they need to adapt to ‘life on the outside’, but their under-developed immune system means they are not only more likely to pick up minor infections, but these can become more serious more quickly. It is therefore important to be alert to even small changes in your baby so that at the first sign that your baby is ‘out of sorts’, you can get them checked over by your GP. Remember that it is always best to err on the side of caution as your baby isn’t yet able to tell you for themselves how they’re feeling.
Health care professionals will fully understand that you might be anxious about your baby’s health in the first few weeks, and so the rule of thumb is that if you feel your baby seems different from usual or starts to behave differently, the right thing to do is to get advice from a health care professional as soon as you are able. They can then advise you about any treatment or refer you for further help if needed.
To help you with this, this feature provides some helpful information about the common problems for babies in the first few months of life. These are not all illnesses but may just be your baby adjusting to the different conditions around them; however, a few are early warning signs of what might develop into an illness if not treated correctly.
High temperature (fever)
A high temperature/fever is the body’s natural response and defence against an infection and your baby will feel hot when you touch their back or chest. However, when babies have been crying lustily for a while, they can also become quite hot, so it is important to try and distinguish between a baby who is ‘hot and bothered’ because they are upset, or when they are hot because they might have an infection. You can buy digital thermometers to check their real temperature, and if your baby is below three months old with a temperature of 38oC or more, or below six months of age with a temperature of 39oC or more, you should contact your GP immediately. Babies who are less than six months old can become very poorly, very quickly. If you haven’t got a thermometer and your baby’s back or chest is hot when normally clothed for the season, be confident that your instinct is every bit as reliable as a digital thermometer!
If your baby is hot, they are likely to feel thirsty, so if they’re breastfeeding, offer regular feeds at the breast and if they are bottle feeding offer formula milk feeds or cooled boiled water. Your local GP and/or health visitor will also be able to support and advise you.
Urine infections (also called urinary tract infections (UTIs))
This happens when the bacteria present around your baby’s bottom and nappy area (genitals) gets into the opening where the urine leaves their body (the ‘urethra’) and an infection develops in the urinary tract. Young babies with this infection might be feverish, seem ‘out of sorts’, and are not as interested in feeding as usual. You might also suspect a UTI if their urine has a different smell, and/or they seem to be in pain (in their side or their tummy). If you suspect that your baby has a UTI it is important that you contact your GP immediately, as where an infection isn’t treated promptly, it can easily track upward and may cause a kidney infection which can be quite serious.
In the first few days after birth, there can sometimes be a pink stain on a wet nappy. This is nothing to do with a urine infection; these are called urates and are not at all harmful. If you have a baby girl, very occasionally you might see blood in her nappy, but this should only last a day or two. The slight bleeding is as a result of withdrawal from the maternal hormones which cross the placenta (afterbirth) to the baby during pregnancy. However, if the blood in the nappy continues, you should contact your GP straightaway.
This is a yeast infection caused by the bacteria Candida albicans and is more commonly called ‘Thrush’. Many of us carry these bacteria in our bodies and your baby can pick up a thrush infection from you during their passage down the birth canal (vagina).
In young babies, commonly those aged two months and younger, thrush presents as white patches on the inside of the baby’s mouth; this should not be confused with the white residue seen on the tongue following a milk feed. These are very sore and can bleed which makes sucking painful. One sign is when your baby starts crying during a breastfeed or while sucking on a bottle teat. If you suspect your baby has oral (in the mouth) thrush, contact your GP for treatment. Thrush is usually harmless and with treatment should clear within a week; if the thrush doesn’t appear to be clearing, ask your GP, midwife or health visitor for their advice.
Ear infections are caused by a build-up of fluid in the section that connects the middle ear to the back of the nose and throat (called the Eustachian tube). They are very painful and while it can be very difficult to tell whether a young baby has an ear infection, generally they will be unwell, feverish and might pull at their ear, or have difficulty sucking or swallowing, and/or cry during a breast/bottle feed. Ear infections tend to go hand-in-hand with coughs and colds. Consequently, if your baby has these symptoms you should get them checked by your GP within the next 24 hours. If you see any yellow or blood-stained fluid coming from their ear take them to the GP immediately. Ear infections need to be treated with antibiotics to kill the infection and reduce the swelling, which allows the fluid in the ear to be gradually reabsorbed by the body. As frequent ear infections can damage hearing your GP and/or health visitor can advise you on the best way to monitor your baby to reduce the risk of this.
These affect the upper respiratory tract – the nose, throat and ears and the infections are caused by one of a number of different viruses. Common colds are mostly spread by droplet infection when the droplets enter the air and are breathed in by others. The most common reason for this is where people cough and sneeze without covering their noses and mouths, or don’t wash their hands after blowing their nose. Babies are more at risk of developing colds because of their under-developed immune system, although these are normally only mild infections that last between three and 10 days. If your baby catches a cold, they are likely to have reddened eyes and a runny nose; they may also have a cough, sore throat and a raised temperature and be irritable and off their food. As babies rely on their noses rather than their mouths to breathe, when their noses become blocked and they sound ‘snuffly’, they have much more of a struggle to nose breathe and feed.
Breastfeeding helps to protect your baby against colds, as they receive your antibodies and natural immunity. Make sure your own family are aware of the way these viruses can be passed on and maintain good hygiene around the new baby; also try to keep your baby away from others who have coughs and colds. If your baby is under three months, always contact your GP, midwife or health visitor at the first signs of illness. Call your doctor if your baby has a raised temperature, is wheezing, or has thick green mucus running from their nostrils, or the cold/cough persists. Don’t give your baby any cold remedies without speaking with your GP or a pharmacist first, as most could do more harm than good! However, elevating the head of your baby’s cot can ease congestion, as can nursing your baby in a steamy bathroom, or using a cooling vaporiser in the room where your baby sleeps.
This affects both breast and formula fed babies and usually develops in the evenings between 6.00pm and midnight when babies are between the ages of two and four weeks old. In most cases, it will have settled by three months of age. Symptoms include an otherwise healthy baby who cries for more than three hours per day and for more than three days in one week. However, in addition to persistent crying, your baby is likely to look uncomfortable and may be seen to pull up their legs (indicating tummy pain) and may also pass a lot of wind. It can be incredibly upsetting to see your baby crying so much and can also make things pretty tense for everyone at home. There are however, some things that you can try – more frequent winding is a good starter, as colicky babies are often hungry babies who like to gulp down their feeds, whether this is on the breast or from the bottle!
If you are breastfeeding, certain foods you’re eating might be passing into your breast milk and triggering colic. These include; spicy foods, wheat products, caffeine and garlic and it might be helpful to avoid these foods for a few days to see if this makes a difference. If you are formula feeding your baby you may want to consider trying an alternative formula milk, to see if it is less irritating for their tummy. It is a good idea to seek advice from your health visitor.
Babies can become constipated and appear to be straining to have their bowels open (have a poo) these are then firm, pellet-like stools (poo). Your baby might also be more irritable and crying more because they are uncomfortable. The bowel habits of breastfed and bottle fed babies are different – human breast milk is more easily digested than formula milk; breastfed babies are therefore likely to have fewer dirty nappies than bottle fed babies. Once breastfeeding is established, they might then have their bowels opened only once or twice in an entire week, whereas most formula fed babies have one dirty nappy a day. Once solids are introduced into the diet (from around six months); this can increase the risk of constipation, especially if the baby isn’t getting enough fluids. Babies also frequently grunt, grimace and strain when they are having their bowels opened, even when they aren’t constipated. If you are worried though, contact your midwife, health visitor or GP who will check your baby to rule out illness and will be able to advise you.
An allergy is where your body reacts differently to something it has come into contact with. These reactions can be quite mild, in the form of an itchy rash, or life-threatening, where it causes difficulty breathing. Anything can cause these reactions but the most common are dairy foods, wheat, eggs, and nuts. Allergies tend to be inherited which means your baby can have the same allergies as either, or both, of its parents. For babies, the reaction can result in them being sick, having diarrhoea, colic, constipation or skin rashes. Skin reactions are more common in young babies with milk intolerance and can lead to eczema. In much more severe allergic reactions babies can develop wheezing (not associated with a cough/cold), or have difficulties breathing. If you think your baby is having a severe allergic reaction, you should dial 999 and call for an ambulance immediately.
Where you have any concerns that your baby might have an allergy, always seek advice from your local GP, midwife or health visitor. They will be able to advise you and organise the necessary tests to help identify which substances are triggering your baby’s allergic reaction.
Remember that as you and your baby get to know each other, you will soon become more confident in how your baby communicates with you. You will learn to differentiate between their cries when they are feeling hungry or tired, and when they are feeling poorly. You should soon begin to feel confident that it is you, as parents, who know your baby best. The important message is that you should never take a chance with your baby’s health – your health professional, whether this is your midwife, health visitor or GP, will listen to you and take your concerns seriously.
If you want general advice you can also phone NHS Direct (Tel: 0845 46 47), speak with your local pharmacist, or go to your local NHS drop-in centre.
Should your baby injure themselves mores seriously, such as a nasty bump to their head or scald, take them to your nearest Accident & Emergency department straight away. Where your concerns are more serious eg your baby is having difficulty breathing or has a fit (convulsion) for the first time – don’t hesitate – call 999 immediately for an ambulance.