What to Do If Your Baby Has a Fever

Mother taking temperature of her crying baby girl

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Kids get sick all the time, but a fever is one of those symptoms that can send parents into a panic. They pop up suddenly out of the blue, go away and come back again, or even appear halfway through another illness, turning a mild cold into a more severe one.

However it manifests, a fever is a surefire way to catch a parent’s attention and ignite a flurry of anxiety—especially if your child is still fairly young. Since babies can’t tell us how they’re feeling, it can be frustrating to not know what’s wrong or what you’re supposed to do to ease your child’s discomfort.

If your little one has a fever, here are the most common reasons why, along with everything else you need to know about treating a fever in babies.

Why Your Baby Has a Fever

First of all, it’s important to remember that fevers are not necessarily bad or harmful—they are not an illness, but rather a sign that your baby’s body is fighting some kind of infectious disease or pathogen.

According to Stanford Children’s Health, our bodies often turn up the heat when we’ve been exposed to an infectious disease—it’s the body’s way of responding to foreign intruders, and can even be a sign that it's busy making antibodies to attack whatever germ has slipped through the immune system cracks.

Most of the diseases that cause fevers are common childhood viruses or bacteria. Therefore, most fevers in babies are not harmful and will resolve on their own. Some common reasons why babies get fevers are:

  • colds and influenza
  • croup
  • ear infections
  • routine immunizations

There are a few other reasons why babies get fevers, but these are much less common. If your baby develops a fever, it’s far more likely they have a typical childhood virus. That said, some serious conditions can also cause fever, such as:

Did You Know?

A fever in a baby under three months of age can be a sign of a serious infection. It’s estimated that 10% of neonates (babies under 28 days old) who present with a fever have a bacterial infection.

Unless your baby is very young (under three months old) or you have noticed other worrying symptoms along with the fever, you don’t need to call the doctor right away. However, if your baby isn’t drinking or keeping down any fluids, is vomiting or having diarrhea, has a rash or bruising, or is under three months of age with a rectal fever over 100.4 degrees, you should contact your doctor right away.

Warning Signs

If you suspect your baby might have a fever but you’re unable to take their temperature, there are other physical signs of fever you might be able to observe. These include:

  • loss of appetite
  • fussiness or irritability
  • paleness or skin rash
  • fatigue or lethargy
  • skin that is hot to the touch, especially on the forehead or trunk
  • pulling or tugging at the ear

Keep in mind that some babies won’t show any outward signs of fever, while others will have physical reactions with even a low-grade temperature.

Taking Your Baby’s Temperature

There are several ways to take your baby’s temperature: on the forehead or in the ear, orally, under the arm, and rectally. For young children, a rectal temperature is usually preferred because it’s more accurate. Use a digital thermometer for the best results.

Is It a Fever?
Rectal, forehead, or ear reading 100.4 or higher = fever
Oral reading 100 or higher = fever
Under the arm reading 99 or higher = fever
The kind of thermometer you use determines whether a temperature is a fever or not

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recommends avoiding taking your child’s temperature when they have been exposed to extreme temperatures, like right after a hot bath, after drinking hot or cold beverages, or after they have been dressed very warmly.

Types of Thermometers

Generally, the old-fashioned glass thermometers are no longer recommended due to safety concerns about breakage and mercury exposure. A newer digital thermometer will provide a more accurate (and safer!) reading. But what kind should you buy? 

  • Temporal, or forehead, thermometers are a non-invasive way to quickly check your baby’s temperature. They are considered fairly accurate for kids of all ages, including very young babies.
  • Rectal, oral, and/or under arm thermometers can be useful for babies and kids of different ages; grab a 3-in-1 style that has interchangeable tips clearly marked for use. Typically, you would take a rectal reading for younger babies and toddlers, and an oral reading for kids over four or five years of age. Armpit readings can be done at any age, but are not always reliable.
  • Ear thermometers are also an easy way to take your baby’s temperature, but only if he or she is six months of age or older.

Treatment: What You Can Do

Whether or not you treat your baby’s fever mostly depends on their other symptoms. While seemingly “high,” fevers under 102 are not necessarily harmful in babies older than three months and don’t need to be treated unless your child seems uncomfortable or is uninterested in drinking.

If you do want to treat your baby’s fever, however, there are some easy ways to tackle it at home. If your baby is older than three months, you can give them a dose of infant ibuprofen or acetaminophen to lower their temperature. Dosages depend on age and weight and are usually outlined on the medication package, but if you are still unsure, call your doctor to confirm.

Encourage your child to rest and eat or drink normally, though you may have to be more flexible about meals and snacks while your child has a fever. It’s more important to keep kids hydrated. A breastfeeding baby should be allowed to nurse as often as they want. If you are formula-feeding, make sure to offer regular bottles and be willing to feed in different places or positions if your baby is uncomfortable.

A younger baby only needs breastmilk or formula to stay hydrated, but an older baby may need additional fluid. If your child isn’t interested in drinking water, you can also offer them kid-friendly electrolyte drinks, clear broths or soups, popsicles, or flavored gelatin. Fruit juice contains a lot of sugar, but mixing juice and water together in a 50/50 ratio is a great way to entice your baby to drink without overloading them on sugar. And don’t forget that many real fruits, like watermelon and oranges, contain high amounts of water, too. 

Old wives’ tales suggest bathing your baby to “break” the fever, which may be helpful. According to University of Michigan Medicine, children with high fevers who have not responded to fever-relieving medication like ibuprofen or acetaminophen may benefit from a 20 to 30 minute sponge bath. However, you should not use cold or ice water, or rubbing alcohol (another old wives’ tale!). If your child shows signs of being chilled, like shivering, stop the bath.

Finally, resist the temptation to under- or over-dress your child in response to a fever or chills. Lightweight clothing and blankets that can be easily removed are the best option to avoid overheating, since too many warm layers can trap heat within the body and raise your child’s temperature even more.

When to See a Doctor

Your baby’s age is a major factor in deciding whether or not to call your doctor, along with the severity of your child’s symptoms. Babies under three months old should be treated for fevers over 100.4 degrees right away. If your baby is older than three months (and their temperature is less than 102 degrees), you can wait at least one day before calling your doctor, though you may want to call sooner if the fever is accompanied by other symptoms, like vomiting and diarrhea, rash, or severe cough.

Any fever persisting for more than three days—even if it’s not accompanied by other symptoms—should be reported to your doctor.

Although fevers are relatively common in babies and usually a sign of mild illness, there are times when a fever can signal an emergency situation. If your baby has a fever higher than 102 degrees and/or any of the following symptoms, you should call your doctor immediately or go directly to an emergency care facility if calling isn’t an option:

  • uncontrollable crying
  • refusal to move or wake from sleep
  • signs of respiratory distress, including blue lips or tongue, wheezing or gasping
  • severe headache or abdominal pain
  • redness, swelling, or discharge in or around the eyes, bellybutton, or genitals
  • stiff neck or swollen joints
  • persistent vomiting or diarrhea
  • a change in the appearance of the soft spot on a baby’s head (swelling or sinking)

In some cases, a fever caused by illness can trigger a seizure in children between six months and five years of age. This is called a febrile seizure, and it happens in two to five percent of American children, per the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Though frightening for parents, most febrile seizures don’t cause long-term health effects and are not necessarily a sign that a child has epilepsy.

If your child has a fever caused by an illness and also displays signs of a seizure—such as convulsions or loss of consciousness—make sure the area around the child does not pose a hazard, and call for emergency care immediately.

If Your Baby Still Has a Fever

If you’ve seen a doctor for your child’s fever, he or she should provide guidance on how to handle your child’s illness over the next several days. They will tell you to call back after a certain amount of time if the fever hasn’t resolved depending on what they suspect is the cause.

In the meantime, if your child’s fever increases or they develop any new symptoms, call your doctor back. They may want to see your child again to reassess them.

If your child seems to recover from a fever or illness only to end up with another fever, you should contact your doctor. You should also reach out if your child has had a lingering fever for more than a few days or has repeated bouts of fevers that come and go over the course of several weeks.

How to Prevent Future Fevers

You can’t prevent fevers, per se, but you can prevent some of the illnesses that cause them. Practicing good hygiene—like regular hand-washing, staying away from sick people, and getting adequate sleep—can help your child avoid coming down with many common infectious diseases that cause fevers.

Since some childhood vaccinations may also cause fevers, especially in younger babies, you may want to proactively give your child a dose of infant acetaminophen or ibuprofen after vaccination if they are prone to vaccine-related fevers. For most children, though, this isn’t necessary.

Vaccines and Fevers

When your child receives a routine immunization, their body creates an immune response which may or may not be accompanied by a mild fever. It usually begins within 12 hours of receiving the shot and may last a couple of days. The younger your baby is, the more prone they may be to developing a fever. Again, this is normal—you can treat the fever per your doctor’s recommendations, only notifying your doctor if it doesn’t resolve in a day or two. 

A Word From Verywell

Sickness in babies is, unfortunately, pretty common, which means fevers are, too. Although most fevers are not a major cause for concern, you should contact your doctor if your newborn has any kind of fever, if your older baby has a fever along with other concerning symptoms, or if any baby has a fever for more than a few days. Otherwise, perform basic at-home comfort measures for your baby—and always feel free to call your doctor with any questions you have.

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