Common illnesses for babies

By Dr. Tom Paton on September 17, 2012
Your baby is bound to get sick, but don't sweat it. Here are some common kinds of illnesses and expert tips on how you can help be a great Dr. Mom.

Respiratory infections

These are the most frequent cause of illness in babies. Even a healthy infant can have as many as six respiratory infections in the first year. Here’s what you can do:

  • Keep your infant away from crowds and children with runny noses or coughs. 
  • Make sure there is enough moisture in the air in your home. Reduce dust as much as you can and don’t allow cigarette smoking.
  • Take your baby out in fresh air.


A baby catches the cold virus from other people, not from being left in a draft.

Be careful when you try to clear your baby’s nose. Repeated use of cotton swabs or suction bulbs is not recommended. Sometimes nose drops can be prescribed.

Call your doctor if there is fever, persistent coloured nasal discharge, cough or chest congestion, difficult or rapid breathing, swollen glands or a painful cry.


Croup starts suddenly in the middle of the night and has a characteristic “crowing” or “croupy” barking cough.

Try holding your baby in a steamy shower or bathroom. Cold, moist air from a vaporizer can help.

Danger signs include fever, an inability to make sounds, fear of swallowing or eating, flushed face and drooling. These symptoms are a serious medical emergency. Call the doctor or visit your local emergency department.


If your baby’s temperature is above 38.5°C (102°F), if it continues for more than 24 hours or if it resists treatment with anti-fever medications, call your doctor. There could be a middle ear infection, pneumonia, convulsions or meningitis.

The younger the infant and higher the temperature, the greater the reason for concern. If your baby’s temperature goes above 40°C (104°F), call a doctor.

Fevers often occur in the middle of the night, so it’s important to know how to treat a fever. Ask your doctor for help ahead of time.

Do not use anti-fever medications unless your doctor recommends them. Remove your baby’s extra clothing, keep the temperature in your home comfortable, and give plenty of fluids.

Baby measles (roseola infantum)

One cause of a prolonged fever of 38.5° to 40°C (102° to 104°F) in small children is baby measles, which is caused by a virus. The rash appears as your baby’s temperature normalizes. The short-lived rash is usually pink on the face, neck and trunk. Fever and irritability are the only symptoms. Treat the condition as you would a fever and speak with your doctor.

Skin conditions

The sudden switch from the womb’s fluid environment to air often results in short-lived infant rashes. Most require no medical treatment, but talk to your doctor if you are concerned.

Erythema toxicum

Many newborns have white spots with surrounding redness on the face, trunk and limbs. This condition appears shortly after birth and goes away on its own in five to six days. The cause is unknown.

Sebaceous hyperplasia

These small white spots on the forehead, nose and cheeks (sometimes called baby acne) are an overgrowth of the sebaceous (oil-producing) glands caused by maternal hormones transferred to the baby. The spots, felt as bumps on the skin, go away gradually without treatment. Do not squeeze them.

Miliaria rubra (sweat rash)

Newborns are sensitive to overheating because their sweat glands are immature. This causes a generalized red pinpoint rash, usually on the neck, armpits and chest. Keep the room temperature comfortable and dress your baby in cotton.

Diaper rash

This rash affects the diaper area, sparing the skin creases in the groin. It often affects the penis in circumcised boys. The rash appears as redness on the skin then becomes scaly and rough. Finally, cracks appear, caused by the breakdown of urine into ammonia, which acts as an irritant. Almost all infants who wear diapers develop a rash sooner or later.

Cradle cap (seborrhea)

To prevent cradle cap, wash your baby’s hair with a good quality shampoo. Scrub well, dry briskly with a terry cloth towel, and comb the hair (no matter how little hair your baby has). There is no specific treatment for mild cases. You can smear some baby oil on the scalp in the evening and comb thoroughly. Loosened scales come off easily. Don’t pick scales off with your fingers.

Healthy babies

Most of these conditions can be managed at home with information and advice from a doctor. Most healthy babies recover quickly from minor illnesses, but be sure to contact your health-care provider if you ever have concerns about your baby’s health.

Dr. Tom Paton, MB, ChB, MPH, FRCP(C), is a paediatrician in Edmonton.

Originally published in ParentsCanada: Best Wishes, Spring 2012.

By Dr. Tom Paton| September 17, 2012

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