How to Tell if a Newborn Is Sick: the Most Common Health Conditions Parents Should Look For
If you’re a first-time parent or your child has never been sick before, it can be distressing when your newborn baby falls ill and difficult to pinpoint the cause of any health issues. When your baby exhibits irregular behaviors, unusual symptoms, or signs of sickness, your first reaction may be to panic.
Dealing with sickness is a natural part of human life — especially for infants, as they have yet to fully develop the immune cells necessary to fight infection — but it’s crucial to know how to correctly identify and respond to common health conditions in newborn babies. Though many symptoms are normal and present no cause for concern, others can pose a serious risk to your child’s health or may indicate an underlying health issue.
Knowing more about these common health conditions can be empowering for parents, family members, friends, and caretakers alike. It can be helpful, even calming, to know when you need to talk to your pediatrician and when home care will suffice. Simply put, learning about the signs and symptoms of sickness in newborns will allow you to make the right decisions for your baby’s health and wellbeing, both in the short- and long-term.
Problems With Feeding
Many babies have minor or short-term issues with food, such as being picky about what they eat, spitting up or vomiting, or having diarrhea. These smaller problems are typically temporary and can be resolved with home remedies. If these issues persist or intensify, it could be a sign that your baby has a more serious condition, like a food allergy, thyroid problem, infant botulism, or congenital health problem.
While many babies are fussy eaters, having consistent problems with food can have serious consequences for your newborn. Poor feeding can result in lifelong health problems, including stunted or slowed growth, malnutrition, and impacts on brain development. No matter the cause, if you suspect your baby has a more severe issue with food, bring it up with your pediatrician as soon as possible.
Stomach distention occurs when the stomach expands or swells to a larger size than is typical. It’s fairly common in infants, particularly after feeding. It can also be caused by inhaling an excess amount of air or consuming too many liquids. In that case, burping and other gas relief methods can be an effective treatment.
A distended stomach in and of itself is not a cause for concern, but when it appears alongside other symptoms, it can be indicative of a bigger problem. Some signs to look out for include a hard belly, constipation, diarrhea or vomiting, or a fever. These symptoms can signal an infection, malabsorption of nutrients, or an organ obstruction in the digestive system. If you notice any of these symptoms at the same time as stomach distension, you should reach out to your pediatrician. If your baby is in serious distress or their symptoms are worsening, you may need to take them to the emergency room.
There are several reasons why infants might have discolored skin, but some of the most common are jaundice and blue baby syndrome. Jaundice, which makes the skin look yellow, is highly prevalent among newborns. It occurs when the baby’s liver is unable to get rid of excess bilirubin, a yellow pigment produced by the breakdown of red blood cells. Typically, neonatal jaundice clears up on its own as the liver develops. However, if it lasts longer than a few weeks, it could be caused by an underlying issue, such as a malfunctioning liver, a viral or bacterial infection, or even internal bleeding.
Blue baby syndrome, on the other hand, makes the skin look blue or purple, particularly near the lips, ears, and nail beds. It is caused by blood with low oxygen levels, which, in turn, has several causes in and of itself. Poorly oxygenated blood could stem from a congenital heart defect, problems with the respiratory system, or nitrate poisoning. Treatment for blue baby syndrome varies greatly, depending on the cause.
Other causes of discolored skin in babies range from harmless birthmarks to bruises (which could be harmless, but could be also an indicator of a health issue or even mistreatment of the child). You know your baby and your baby’s life best. If you believe there’s any cause for concern or their skin discoloration persists, don’t hesitate to reach out for guidance or help from a healthcare provider or legal professional.
Lethargy refers to either physical or mental feelings of sleepiness, sluggishness, fatigue, or exhaustion. In babies, lethargy can present itself in several different ways, ranging from having little energy to sleeping more than usual. Babies do need more rest and sleep than older children and adults — depending on their age, they may need to sleep up to 16 hours per day — but excessive sleep, exhaustion, being unresponsive, or other sudden shifts in behavior might be a cause for concern. Lethargy can be caused by something as simple as low blood sugar or as serious as a brain injury or nutritional deficiencies. Whether it came on gradually or suddenly, you should immediately seek medical attention for your child if they are truly lethargic.
Due to advances in healthcare, birth injuries have declined steadily over the years, but it is possible for your baby to be injured during the birthing process. These injuries can result from natural complications in birth, but can also be due to medical malpractice commited by a doctor or other healthcare professional. Sometimes referred to as birth trauma, common examples of these types of injuries include:
- Minor bruises, cuts or fractures, which are particularly common in larger infants or feet-foot births;
- Complications from vacuum extractions, such as skull fractures or shoulder injuries;
- Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy or birth asphyxia, which occurs when the baby does not get enough oxygen during the birthing process;
- Infant hematoma, which causes blood to pool around the baby’s brain;
- Injuries to the spinal cord, which can be caused by pulling, rotating, or stretching the baby during birth.
Smaller birth injuries often heal on their own or quickly with proper medical care, but sometimes, they are more serious and require further treatment. In very rare but severe instances, these injuries could affect your child’s health for the rest of their life. In addition to seeking both appropriate short- and long-term care for your child, you may also want to look into legal assistance to properly deal with any birth injuries.
Babies commonly have breathing patterns that may seem worrisome to their parents, such as making unusual noises or taking long pauses between breaths. As many as 7% of newborn infants experience respiratory distress. In many instances, these irregularities are caused by infants’ developing respiratory systems and are nothing to worry about. Although rare, breathing problems can be indicative of more serious health problems, including severe infection or obstruction of the airways. If your baby is breathing very rapidly, working very hard to breathe, or has additional symptoms (such as fever or lethargy), you may need to contact the doctor or seek medical care.
Excessive Crying or Fussiness
While some may do so more than others, all babies cry and fuss from time to time. It’s part of how infants communicate their needs and interact with others. If your baby cries, they may simply need food, changing, or attention. Even phases of frequent crying and fussing can be a normal part of your infant’s development.
Of course, when crying and fussing becomes excessive or severe, it could be a sign of a medical problem. It may be minor or easily treated, like an ear infection or toothache, but others may signal major complications, such as hearing issues or brain damage. Pay attention to your baby’s cries so you’re able to determine which ones are normal for them and which require a trip to the doctor.
Convulsions and seizures are relatively common in newborns and babies. Febrile convulsions are among the most common and are caused by fevers. However, seizures can also be caused by a host of other conditions, ranging from epilepsy to genetic disorders. On occasion, seizures can be caused by using certain products; for instance, popular teething tablets and gels have been linked to convulsions in infants.
Common symptoms of a convulsion include uncontrolled muscle movement, strange or jerky movements, changes in breathing, eyes rolling in the back of the head, and loss of consciousness. If your child has severe symptoms or they have been unconscious for several minutes, you should seek medical care immediately. Even if your child has had convulsions before or you’ve already received guidance from a doctor on how to handle a convulsion, you should always call 9-1-1 for long or intense convulsions.
How to Help a Sick Baby
If your baby does not need immediate medical attention, there are many ways you can soothe and care for them at home when they get sick. Many of the following tips can also be useful in helping your baby maintain overall health and wellness, even when they aren’t feeling sick:
Drink fluids: Like adults, babies can benefit from drinking a lot of fluids when they’re unwell. If they’re younger than six months, stick to breast milk or formula; if they’re older than six months, you can also give them a small amount of cool water. Give over-the-counter medications: You can use certain over-the-counter medications to relieve some of your baby’s symptoms. Make sure any medications you give are age-appropriate and safe for children. Get plenty of rest: Rest and relaxation are crucial to getting better. Try to put your baby to bed early or encourage them to take an extra nap during the day. Give them a bath: Giving your baby a bath can be soothing. Give them a warm bath to ease any aches or pains, or a lukewarm one if they are running a fever and need to cool off. Give them love and attention: Finally, shower your baby with love and affection while you help them get better. Try quiet activities, such as reading, singing, or napping with them, to connect with your baby during this time.
If your child has never been sick before or you’re a first-time parent, it can be scary and easy to catastrophize when your newborn falls ill. Remember that things likely aren’t as serious as you think — and that you can get help from your doctor when your baby does need it.