What to do when when baby gets a fever


Babies aren’t able to control their body temperatures as well as adults or older children, and when they get sick they can rapidly develop high fevers. Normal body temperature for a baby is between 36.5°C and 37°C.

Anything over 37°C is considered to be a fever. A fever is the body’s natural defence against infection, but because a baby’s temperature can be unpredictable there are other ways to identify a fever due to illness or infection. These include:

  • A hot, sweaty forehead and tummy
  • Coughing and shivering
  • Irritability and lethargy
  • Poor appetite
  • Restlessness during the night
  • Being withdrawn and unusually quiet

Sometimes a fever may not be as a result of infection; your baby’s body temperature could be raised due to overheating or dehydration. Never leave a baby in a hot car, dress your baby in clothes that are appropriate to the weather and make sure he gets enough fluids.

Taking your baby's temperature

There are three main ways to take your baby’s temperature: axillary (under the arm or in the ear), orally or rectally. Most thermometers today have digital readouts and some take temperature quickly from the ear canal. Under normal circumstances, temperatures tend to be highest around 4pm and lowest around 4am.

To take baby’s temperature:

  • place the bulb of the thermometer under the baby’s tongue, or into the ear canal no further than the outer ear, or under his arm, or lubricate the tip with petroleum jelly and insert gently about 1cm into the rectum while baby is lying on his stomach.
  • Hold baby and thermometer as still as possible for the recommended amount of time, usually three minutes, not letting go of the thermometer.
  • Remove the thermometer and read the temperature.

If your baby has a seizure from a fever:

Some infants and toddlers have convulsions at the onset of a high fever. This is extremely frightening for parents, but it is important to stay calm. Febrile convulsions are common and usually self-limiting, however you should seek medical attention as soon as possible.

During a seizure, your baby may become stiff or floppy, fall unconscious or become unaware of his surroundings. He may jerk or twitch, his eyes may roll back and he will have difficulty breathing or appear to stop breathing.

Don’t try to restrain your baby and don’t put anything in his mouth. Put him on his side with a rolled towel at his back for support. Loosen tight clothing from around the neck.

If the convulsion lasts more than five minutes or if there are repeat seizures call an ambulance or go to the emergency room immediately.

Bringing the fever down

  • If your baby’s temperature is very high at the peak of the fever, undress him completely and cool him down with a fan or gently sponge him down with lukewarm water
  • Give him medication for pain and fever as prescribed by your doctor, either orally or by suppository if he is vomiting
  • Keep his room cool and give him plenty of fluids to drink
  • Check his temperature every 15 minutes until the fever breaks (he should start sweating and feel cool and clammy). Dress him in light, warm clothes once the fever breaks so that he does not get cold
  • Watch for a repeat fever every three to four hours
  • Give him plenty of fluids to drink and check his temperature in half an hour

When to call the doctor

  • If your baby is younger than one year and is exhibiting a temperature of 38°C or higher
  • If your newborn has a lower-than-normal temperature (35°C or lower)
  • If your baby has a fever for longer than a day

If your baby is exhibiting any of the following, medical attention is required immediately:

  • Small purple-red spots on his skin that don’t turn white or paler when you press on them, or large purple blotches
  • Difficulty breathing, even after you’ve cleared his nose with a bulb syringe
  • A stiff neck and pain when the head is bent forward
  • Persistent vomiting
  • Sensitivity to bright light

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