When to call the doctor

Know when your baby’s just unwell, and when it’s an illness or health problem that needs a doctor or ambulance

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Any illness is distressing for parents but just because your baby is unwell is doesn’t mean she needs to see a doctor. Here’s  advice for mums wondering whether now is the time to seek medical attention.

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Problem: Tummy ache

“If a baby brings her knees up to her chest while crying, it’s likely she has a tummy ache, usually caused by trapped wind,” says Dr Catti Moss, GP. “But tummy ache can be caused by anything from appendicitis to water infections. If your child pulls her ears or has a headache as well as tummy ache, it could be an ear infection or a childhood form of migraine.”

What to do

Dr Moss suggests trying the ‘toy test’ with your child to find out how bad the pain really is. “If your child is happy to play and forgets about the pain, it’s unlikely that it’s serious,” she says.

GP or hospital?

“Tummy pains that go on for longer than a few hours need to be checked out by a GP on that same day,” advises Dr Moss.

Problem: Rash

“There are many reasons for rashes or spots – including a viral infection, eczema or measles,” says expert Dr Moss. But every parent’s worst nightmare is that the rash may be caused by meningitis.

What to do

“To check if a rash is potentially serious, do ‘the blanche test’, ” says Dr Moss. “Press a glass firmly onto the rash – if it disappears or a white circle appears, it’s not serious. If it doesn’t disappear, look for other symptoms that might indicate meningitis, such as a high fever, vomiting and sensitivity to light.

“With meningitis, the rash may begin as a few small spots anywhere on the body but can quickly spread. By the time a purple rash similar to bruising appears, the child is usually extremely ill. Early symptoms of meningitis, which may occur before there’s any obvious rash, can include fever, headache, nausea and muscle pain, with cold hands and feet.”

GP or hospital?

“See your GP if you’re concerned about a rash,” says Dr Moss. “But if your child has any of the symptoms of meningitis and seems very ill – whether or not she has a rash – call an ambulance immediately or take her straight to hospital.”

Problem: Fever

“A temperature above 37°C is a fever, but anything over 39.5°C is when doctors become concerned,” says Ffion Davies, a consultant at Leicester Royal Infirmary’s A&E department.

What to do

If your child’s temperature is between 37°C and 39°C, try to bring it down with medicine. “In babies over 3 months, first give liquid paracetamol, such as Calpol,” says Dr Moss. “This should lower a temperature by 1°C in around 30 minutes. Ibuprofen can then be given after Calpol if you feel it’s needed, then alternate them according to instructions on the bottle. Give your child a warm bath – not a cold one, as this doesn’t help lower temperature more than a warm one.”

GP or hospital?

“Get your child to a doctor or hospital urgently if her temperature is above 39°C and doesn’t come down after Calpol or Ibuprofen,” says Dr Davies.

“A fever below 39°C is still serious if it doesn’t come down after giving medicine and if there are no periods of the child feeling better. In this case, see your GP if your baby is under 6 months and fever continues for longer than 24 hours, or if your child’s over 6 months and it goes on for three or more days.”

Problem: Diarrhoea

The key to coping with diarrhoea is to replace your baby’s lost fluids.

What to do

“If breastfeeding your baby, feed her as often as possible, as she’ll take as much as she needs. If bottlefeeding, talk to your GP about how much extra milk you should be giving. Also look for blue hollows under her eyes and for listlessness, which can be signs of dehydration,” says Dr Moss.

GP or hospital?

See your GP as soon as possible if your baby isn’t drinking or keeping fluids down.

If your baby is drinking and keeping fluids down but her diarrhoea continues for more than a couple of days there may be a problem with her health so see your doctor, advises Dr Moss.

Problem: Vomiting

“If it’s a virus or tummy bug, 24 hours of vomiting will be followed by diarrhoea,” says Dr Davies.

What to do

“Give fluids little and often to keep your baby well-hydrated – a 5ml syringe of water every five minutes for babies under a year, and half a glass of fluid every 20 minutes for babies over a year. If your baby also has a fever, treat with infant paracetamol (for babies over 3 months),” says Dr Davies.

GP or hospital?

“See your GP if vomiting persists for more than 24 hours with no diarrhoea, as it may be a sign of another infection,” says Dr Davies. 

When to dial 999 for an ambulance

Call an ambulance immediately if your baby shows any of the following symptoms:

  • Not breathing
  • Unconscious
  • Seeming breathless, or breathing much faster than usual
  • Looking very pale, or the skin being blue around her lips
  • Having a convulsion
  • Cold hands or feet, but also has a temperature over 38°C or 100.4°F
  • Feeling floppy or limp
  • Has a raised, tense or bulging soft spot (fontanelle) on her head.

If your baby has mild symptoms and you’d like to know more, contact NHS Direct. You can speak to a nurse 24 hours a day.

Mums’ stories

“We were terrified when our daughter swallowed travel pills.”

“We’d just arrived in Edinburgh for my brother’s wedding when I noticed Ella was very quiet. I found her in the bedroom, crunching her way through a half-empty packet of travel pills.

“Trying to stay calm, I called the local children’s hospital – who told me instantly that the tablets weren’t harmful to children. We had to spend a day in hospital, where Ella was monitored half-hourly, but she was fine and we got to the wedding the next day!”

Ali, 41, mum to Ella, 3

“Our son spent Christmas in hospital with a bronchial infection.”

“James had had a chest infection for just over a week when he started to go off his food. We weren’t sure whether to take him to the doctor as it was Christmas Eve, but when he became lethargic, we felt he should be checked out.

“It was just as well, as the doctor called an ambulance and James spent Christmas Day in hospital with a bronchial infection. After antibiotics, he improved very quickly, but we definitely did the right thing in taking him to the GP.”

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Danielle, 40, mum to James, 1

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