Sick baby? When to seek medical attention

When a healthy baby gets sick, don't panic. Understand when to call the doctor and when to seek emergency care for your baby.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

When you have a baby occasional infections and fevers are inevitable. But even parents who have experience with sick babies can have trouble distinguishing normal fussiness and mild illnesses from serious problems. Here's when to contact the doctor — and when to seek emergency care — for a sick baby.

When to contact your baby's doctor

An occasional illness is usually nothing to worry about in an otherwise healthy baby — but sometimes it's best to contact the doctor. Look for these signs and symptoms:

  • Changes in appetite. If your baby refuses several feedings in a row or eats poorly, contact the doctor.
  • Changes in behavior. If your baby is hard to awaken or unusually sleepy, tell the doctor right away. Let the doctor know if your baby is extremely floppy, crying more than usual or very hard to console.
  • Tender navel or penis. Contact the doctor if your baby's umbilical area or penis suddenly becomes red or starts to ooze or bleed.
  • Fever. If your baby is younger than 3 months old, contact the doctor for any fever.

    If your baby is 3 to 6 months old and has a temperature up to 102 F (38.9 C) and seems sick or has a temperature higher than 102 F (38.9 C), contact the doctor.

    If your baby is 6 to 24 months old and has a temperature higher than 102 F (38.9 C) that lasts longer than one day but shows no other signs or symptoms, contact the doctor. If your baby also has other signs or symptoms — such as a cold, cough or diarrhea — you might contact the doctor sooner based on their severity.

    If your baby has a fever that lasts for more than 3 days, contact the doctor.

  • Diarrhea. Contact the doctor if your baby's stools are especially loose or watery.
  • Vomiting. Occasional spitting up, the easy flow of a baby's stomach contents through his or her mouth, is normal. Vomiting occurs when the flow is forceful — shooting out inches rather than dribbling from the mouth. Contact the doctor if your baby vomits forcefully after feedings or your baby hasn't been able to keep liquids down for eight hours.
  • Dehydration. Contact the doctor if your baby cries with fewer tears, has significantly fewer wet diapers or has a dry mouth. Also contact the doctor if your baby's soft spot appears sunken.
  • Constipation. If your baby has fewer bowel movements than usual for a few days and appears to be struggling or uncomfortable, contact the doctor.
  • Colds. Contact the doctor if your baby has a cold that interferes with his or her breathing, has nasal mucus that lasts longer than 10 to 14 days, has ear pain or has a cough that lasts more than one week.
  • Rash. Contact the doctor if a rash appears infected or if your baby suddenly develops an unexplained rash — especially if it's accompanied by a fever.
  • Eye discharge. If one or both eyes are red or leaking mucus, contact the doctor.

If you think you should contact the doctor, go ahead. After hours, you might be able to use a 24-hour nurse line offered through the doctor's office or your health insurance company.

Sept. 20, 2016 See more In-depth