It’s an unfortunate reality that babies and young children, particularly toddlers, get sick pretty frequently. It seems to happen most often between the ages of one and two years, when they're putting everything in their mouth, going to childcare or playgroup and mixing more with older kids, all while building up their immunity. The winter when my first child was around this age I visited the GP so many times I jokingly asked if they had a frequent patient system, with my tenth visit for free!
Child illness is a frustrating reality of having young children, but they really do eventually outgrow this stage as they build up their resistance. By about age five their sick days are far less common.
So if you have a young child, how do you know when you need to go to the doctor, or when some extra cuddles and Panadol will suffice?
Firstly, it's a good idea to make sure your child is up to date with the immunisation schedule. Of course, immunisations are never fun – for parents or our babies – but the pain (for both of us) is over quickly, and the benefits are the protection and eradication of serious and life threatening diseases.
In my experience I've found the best option to be the immunisation service my local council provides. Some require booking and some have a drop-in service, but I’ve found their practitioners are the fastest and best jabbers around! Their distraction techniques and lightning fast jabs will have your baby recovering in a matter of seconds.
And here's a tip: make sure you bring any bottles, dummies or favourite toys to comfort your baby after the injection. And nothing soothes better than a breastfeed!
The practitioner will advise you of any expected reactions, but they often suggest baby Panadol to soothe any minor reactions, so have some of that on standby.
Immunisations will protect your child from the worst of the childhood infections, but unfortunately there’s no immunisation for the common cold. Even worse, it's the the most frequent cause of illness in children.
Cold symptoms are pretty much the same in children and adults, including
- runny nose
- watery/itchy eyes
- a cough
- a mild temperature.
You might also notice that your child has lost his appetite, is vomiting, and is generally miserable. This can last up to a bit over a week.
You don't need to do much to treat a cold - paracetamol for a fever, warm drinks for a sore throat and
a eucalyptus inhalant or saline nose spray is all that's really needed ... apart from lots of cuddles and attention!
But if your child doesn't get better after a few days, it's time to see a doctor. You should also see the doctor if your little one won't drink, if he's vomiting a lot, is pale and extra sleepy, seems to be having trouble breathing, or if he has a high temperature that won't come down.
I'm also a big fan of following your instinct. You know your baby better than anyone, and if you’re worried then a visit to the doctor may help to reassure you. What’s the worst that can happen: they say it’s a common cold and you feel like an over-anxious parent! But if it turned out to be something more serious, you’d be relieved you followed your gut and acted on it, so if in doubt do exactly that.
Read more in the Essential Kids cold and flu fact sheet.
Like the common cold, you can't prevent ear infections. The good news is that children usually grow out of them by school age.
It can be hard for you to diagnose an ear or throat infection in your child, as young babies can’t tell you where the pain is. But you can watch for the following, which can be signs of an ear infection:
- loss of appetite
- disrupted sleep
- crying when lying down
- tugging at ears
If you see any discharge from the ear it's important you see a doctor immediately – it could be a perforated eardrum.
If your child has a lot of ear infections, she might need to get grommets (ventilating tubes). These are ventilating tubes which go into the eardrum to help preserve your child's hearing. Grommets are very common and can really help kids who go through a lot of infections.
Another common infection in children under five is croup. This is an infection that affects the windpipe and the vocal cords, and can occur after your child has a cold. It can lead to a harsh, barking cough and noisy breathing, which can be worse at night.
Croup usually clears up over a few days, but sometimes it can actually get worse. It's time for the doctor if your little one:
- is having a hard time breathing – that is, if his nostrils flare, he's having trouble eating and drinking, or he won't lie down
- is breathing really loudly, even if he's just sitting quietly
- has trouble swallowing.
When you have a sick child, remember to beware of 'Doctor Google'; if in doubt, always talk to your trusted health practitioner.
Having a sick child can be a stressful and exhausting time, but rest assured they will be past the frequent illness stage in no time. And soon enough you’ll be longing for the days when they were small and fragile again!