Signs your baby is ill
Sometimes, knowing the difference between common childhood illnesses and when your little one is seriously ill, can be difficult. But as their parent, always trust your instincts because you know what your child is usually like and when something is seriously wrong. Things to look out for that may be signs of more serious illness, include:
- A spotty, red or purple rash on their skin, that does not disappear when you press a glass against it
- blue, pale, blotchy, or ashen (grey) skin
- High or low body temperatures
- Trouble breathing, rapid breathing, panting, or sucking their stomach under their ribs
- Green vomit
- your child is crying constantly, and you cannot console or distract them, unusual crying and other signs of distress
- your child is hard to wake up, or appears disoriented or confused
- green vomit
- your child has a febrile seizure (fit) for the first time
- your child is under 8 weeks old and does not want to feed
- nappies that are drier than usual – this is a sign of dehydration
- your child is not their usual selves and is quiet and uninterested
If your child has any of the signs listed above, get medical help straight away: You’ll know when your baby’s behaviour is unusual or symptoms seem worrying.
Common illnesses in babies
Here is some useful information about some of the more common illnesses in babies and children, like croup, cradle cap, colic and conjunctivitis:
Croup is an illness that commonly affects babies and causes inflammation of the voice box, windpipe and airways going to the lungs. Croup usually starts with cold symptoms, like coughing, a runny nose and a high body temperature. It's usually mild, but it's important to call NHS 111 or see a GP straight away if you think your child has croup, as they may need treatment.
The following are symptoms of croup that may worsen at night:
- A barking cough (sounding like a seal)
- A raspy sound when breathing in
- Having difficulty breathing
- A hoarse-sounding voice
Croup is mild in most cases, but if you’re worried, the symptoms become worse or they are not better after 48 hours, seek medical attention to avoid it becoming more severe.
Your baby may have colic if they cry a lot, and there’s no obvious reason why. Other signs that your baby may have colic are when your baby:
- Is difficult to soothe or settle down
- Has a red face
- Clenches their fists
- Arches their back and brings their knees into their stomach
- Is very windy and their stomach rumbles
Colic usually goes away on its own, usually by the time they’re 3-4 months old. If you’re not sure what’s wrong, speak to your health visitor, call NHS 111 or see a GP.
To help them feel better you can:
- Hold, gently rock or cuddle and soothe your baby when they’re crying
- Wind them after each feeding
- Give them a warm, soothing bath
- Keep your baby upright when feeding
- Play some gentle soothing music to distract them
Call NHS 111 or see a GP, if your baby:
- Has colic, but nothing seems help them settle or feel better
- Is not growing or putting on weight as expected
- Still has symptoms of colic after 4 months of age
A GP will check your baby for other reasons that may be causing their crying. You should also call NHS 111 or your GP if you're worried about their crying or you're finding it hard to cope.
Nappy rashes are common. In fact, around a quarter of babies and toddlers will get a nappy rash at some point.
Signs that your baby may have a nappy rash are red patches on the skin on their bottom, and spots, blisters or pimples. A mild nappy rash might not feel sore to your baby but may feel hot to the touch. More severe nappy rash may make your baby feel uncomfortable and distressed.
A nappy rash can be caused by:
- Not changing nappies often enough, which may cause the skin to be in contact with wee or poo for too long
- The nappy rubbing against your baby's skin
- Using baby wipes that contain alcohol, or soap, detergent and bubble bath
- Medicines, such as laxatives or antibiotics
- Not cleaning nappy area of your baby’s body
Tips to help prevent nappy rash:
- Try to change your baby's nappy frequently or as soon as it is wet or dirty. Clean the whole area gently but thoroughly from your baby’s front to their back, with baby wipes that are fragrance- and alcohol-free.
- When changing your baby’s nappy, lie them on a towel with their nappy off for as long and as often as you can, to let fresh air reach their skin.
- Applying a thin layer of barrier cream to the skin when changing your baby, can protect their skin.
- Make sure your baby’s nappy fits properly. A tight nappy can irritate the skin and if it is too loose, it won’t soak up pee properly.
- Bath your baby once or twice a day, but not more often as it may dry out their skin. After washing, gently dry your baby and avoid talcum powders, soaps, bubble baths and lotions, as these can irritate your baby’s skin.
Ask your health visitor or pharmacist to recommend a nappy rash cream to help with discomfort and healing. It’s normal for babies to have skin rashes but if your baby’s rash is severe or you’re worried that it’s more than a minor irritation, or the rash doesn’t clear up after a few days, then take your baby to the GP.
Cradle cap is a skin condition common with babies that may appear as scaly patches of white or yellow skin. If your baby’s skin tone is black or brown, the patches may look pink with white or grey scales. Cradle cap is neither painful or itchy. You’ll be glad to hear that it’s not caught from other babies, but the cause of cradle cap is not known.
Cradle cap usually clears up on its own, but you can lightly massage a suitable moisturiser (emollient) on to your baby’s scalp to help loosen scales. If your baby’s hair comes away with the scales, don’t worry as it will grow back again. You can also gently brush your baby's scalp with a soft brush, then wash it with a baby shampoo. Don’t pick the crusts as this can cause infection.
You can speak to a health visitor or pharmacist for advice, but if your baby’s cradle cap spreads all over their body, the crusts bleed or leaks fluid, the area becomes swollen, or doesn't improve after a few weeks of treatment, then you’ll need to see a doctor.
Conjunctivitis also called pink eye and usually affects both eyes, which become red, swollen, itchy, watery or ooze sticky pus. It’s caused by an infection or allergies and generally gets better in a few weeks. If your baby is younger than 28 days old and you think they may have symptoms of conjunctivitis, get medical attention immediately by calling NHS 111. If your child is under 2 and you think they have conjunctivitis, you’ll need to see a doctor for treatment. For children older than 2, speak to a pharmacist about conjunctivitis as they can give you advice.
Tips to help stop the spread of conjunctivitis:
- Avoid rubbing yours or your baby’s eyes
- Do not share towels and pillows and ensure to wash them in hot water and detergent
- Ensure your mouth and noses are covered when sneezing. After sneezing into a tissue, ensure to dispose of them in the bin
- Use warm, soapy water to wash hands regularly
- Use cooled down boiled water and separate pieces of cotton wool for each eye to gently wipe the crusts off eyelashes.
How to protect your baby from illnesses?
Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent your child from getting an infectious and potentially serious disease. Your baby may feel a little unwell or have a fever after their vaccination, but they should feel better in a day or 2. Click here to learn more about childhood vaccinations.
When they're older, they'll be able to tell you what's wrong, but for now, you're the best person to spot when you’re little one isn’t feeling well.