Get to grips with common baby illnesses

Poorly Baby

It’s every mum’s natural instinct to know when things aren’t quite right with her baby. But it can be hard to know exactly what’s wrong. After all, at first sight one rash looks much like another and, let’s face it, you’ve got so used to baby sick and poop that you’re not sure what’s normal! It’s easy to panic and, while there’s usually nothing serious wrong, it’s helpful to arm yourself with the basics. So follow our guide to common baby illnesses and how to treat them.



Could it be… possetting?

It’s perfectly normal for healthy babies to vomit after feeding. It’s known as ‘possetting’ and happens because your baby’s digestive system isn’t fully developed. Some babies do it a lot, some only occasionally, often because they’ve been overfed. It’s more common in bottle-fed babies, who tend to guzzle more milk. Sometimes it’s just a small amount and sometimes it’s a great gush of milk from the nose and mouth. All babies do it and although it’s usually worst in the first four months, some babies will continue until they’re a year to 18 months old.

What should I do? Have a towel or muslin cloth at the ready – it’s time to get used to the odd splat on your shoulder!

Could it be… gastroesophageal reflux disease (GORD)?

If your baby has a lot of vomiting, with other signs of discomfort like crying after feeds, or stiffening and arching her back, it could be a sign of baby heartburn. Known as GORD or reflux, it’s caused by stomach acid that shoots back up. It’s really the same thing as possetting but there are different severities. It can range from slight reflux to severe vomiting that makes your baby scream in pain.

What should I do? When reflux becomes severe and your baby appears distressed, visit your doctor. He may advise propping the head of your baby’s cot up slightly to create a more upright sleeping position, winding your baby half-way through feeds, or adding a thickener to feed to help keep milk down. If symptoms persist, your doctor may refer you to a paediatrician who might prescribe a heartburn treatment like Gaviscon.

Could it be… pyloric stenosis?

If your baby suffers persistent projectile vomiting (a fountain of vomit across several metres) after feeding he could be suffering from a rare condition called pyloric stenosis. This is caused when the muscle controlling a valve from the stomach to the intestines thickens so food can’t get through. It usually occurs when your baby’s four to six weeks old.

What should I do? Visit your doctor. The problem is easily cured with minor surgery but it does require immediate attention.

Top Tip – Any baby that suffers vomiting combined with a high temperature should be taken to the doctor.


Could it be… an everyday tummy upset?

It can be hard to tell the difference between baby poo and diarrhoea. Breastfed baby’s poo doesn’t smell bad, while bottle-fed baby’s poo does smell. Diarrhoea is even pongier. All sorts of things can cause diarrhoea. Babies’ digestive systems are still getting used to different sorts of food so, if you’re breastfeeding, their tummy upset could be caused by something you’ve eaten.

What should I do? If your baby seems happy apart from the diarrhoea, don’t worry, there’s no need to see your doctor. Offer her plenty of clear fluids and keep an eye out for signs of dehydration, such as fewer wet nappies; dark yellow wee; dry skin or lips; a sunken fontanelle (the soft spot on the top of your baby’s head); tearless crying; rapid breathing; or cold, blotchy hands and feet. If she does appear dehydrated, visit your doctor.

Could it be… a viral infection?

The most common viral cause of diarrhoea is rotavirus gastroenteritis. It’s extremely infectious and the symptoms include, diarrhoea, vomiting, stomach pains and fever.

What should I do? There’s no need to panic. Most babies will battle on through. The most important thing is to keep your baby hydrated with plenty of clear fluids. However, if your baby has diarrhoea for more than 24 hours or shows signs of dehydration, visit your doctor.

Top Tip – After a tummy upset it can take 10 days for your child’s stomach to settle and recover. It’s therefore important not to give your child dairy products for 10 days to two weeks after her illness as her stomach won’t be able to cope with it.


Could it be… newborn rash?

This may appear as a blotchy red rash all over your baby’s body soon after she’s born. It’s nothing to worry about and is simply your baby’s skin getting used to touching things like clothes and bedding.

What should I do? There’s no need to do anything – the blotches will disappear on their own.

Could it be… heat rash?

Heat rash mainly appears on your baby’s head and neck as tiny red spots that join to make red splodges.

What should I do? Don’t fret, it’s very common in newborns as they adjust to the temperature outside the womb.

Could it be… milk spots?

Milk spots have nothing to do with milk and is thought to be caused by all the hormones that pass between mum and baby during labour. They stimulate your baby’s oil glands, which causes little pimples. Its medical name is milia.

What should I do? Nothing – milia should clear up by around three months. Don’t try and squeeze the spots.

Could it be… nappy rash?

Nappy rash is the red, blotchy and sometimes spotty skin that babies get around the nappy area. It’s caused by the dampness and chafing that come with wearing a wet or soiled nappy.

What should I do? To prevent nappy rash, change your baby as soon possible or use a barrier cream, such as Sudocrem or Metanium. These are a preventative rather than a cure and act as a barrier between the nappy and your baby’s sensitive skin. If nappy rash does appear, the best way to treat it is to leave the nappy off. Your doctor will also be able to provide you with a cream called Timodine if necessary.

Could it be… meningitis?

There are two kinds of meningitis, viral and bacterial. Viral is less serious and most people recover after a few weeks. Bacterial meningitis, however, needs urgent medical attention. This is because bacterial meningitis can also lead to meningococcal septicaemia (blood poisoning). Look out for a distinctive rash, with red or purple spots, that don’t fade when you press a glass against them. Your baby will get sick very quickly, often within a matter of hours with symptoms similar to a cold or flu. The key to spotting it is that your baby’s condition will get worse and worse, rather than going up and down. As well as the rash, watch for fever, drowsiness, a dazed expression, refusal to feed, vomiting, fretfulness, a high-pitched shrill or moaning cry and a stiff neck or arched back.

What should I do? If your baby has any of these symptoms and her condition deteriorates, take her to your doctor or A&E immediately. If you live nearer your doctor, go there, as he’ll be able to give your baby penicillin if he suspects meningitis. There are other viruses that cause a similar rash but it’s crucial a doctor examines your baby – if it is meningitis it could be fatal if it’s not treated.

Runny nose

Could it be… undeveloped sinuses?

Our sinuses don’t fully develop until we’re in our teens so newborn’s noses are prone to running.

What should I do? Keep a tissue to hand!

Could it be… a common cold?

Until your baby builds up immunity to the outside world she’s likely to catch colds. She may have the snivels and be bunged up but should be better within a week.

What should I do? There’s no reason to medicate for colds, but if your baby has a streaming cold and is over three months old, try Calpol Night or Calcold. These dry up all the secretions to help babies breathe. For smaller babies, mucus extractors (which look a bit like turkey basters) are great for sucking snot out! You could also try Baby nose-clear Room Vapour to clear your little one’s sinuses.

Could it be… flu?

It should be easy to spot the difference between flu and a common cold. Your baby will be grisly with a headache, sore throat, fever, coughing and sometimes sickness and diarrhoea.

What should I do? If you’re sure it’s only flu your baby’s suffering with, you don’t need to visit your doctor. However, if you want some reassurance or his temperature is high visit your doctor.


What could it be… croup?

Croup is the inflammation of the voice box and is very common in babies. Listen for a barking, seal-like cough, accompanied by heavy breathing.

What should I do? If you’re happy and your baby doesn’t seem distressed, there’s no need to visit the doctor. Because croup affects the larynx rather than the chest, cough formulations won’t help. You could try using a steaming kettle to humidify the air but if your baby’s really distressed go to the doctor.

What could it be… bronchiolitis?

A viral infection that causes inflammation of the respiratory passages, bronchiolitis usually affects babies between two and 24 months. A runny nose sometimes precedes a dry wheezy cough and your baby may have difficulty feeding and breathing.

What should I do? Your baby will probably just get wheezy and breathe faster than normal, in which case it’s OK to stay at home. However, if he’s not feeding, is breathing incredibly fast and isn’t having wet nappies, it’s sensible to see your doctor.

When to visit a doctor

You should visit your doctor if your baby has:

  • A high temperature and is unwell in any other way
  • Forceful, repeated vomiting that continues for more than 24 hours
  • Diarrhoea for more than 24 hours
  • A swollen abdomen
  • Is particularly lethargic or irritable
  • Signs of dehydration – dry mouth, dark yellow urine, dry nappy for six to eight hours
  • Blood in poo
  • Blood in vomit
  • Convulsions
  • Refuses feeds for more than six to eight hours
  • Shows signs of jaundice (yellow whites of eyes and a yellowish, tanned look to the skin)

What to keep in your medicine cabinet

Available from all good pharmacies.

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