From time to time, your little one can get ill and have a temperature. This is a natural part of childhood and of parenthood, but obviously it isn’t much fun for your baby, and can also be stressful for you as a parent, especially if you’re not sure what might be causing the fever.

Keep reading to find out what fever symptoms to look out for, what temperature is considered to be a high fever in babies, and how you can try to bring down your baby’s temperature and keep him or her comfortable.

What Is a Fever?

A high body temperature isn’t an illness in itself. A fever is your baby’s natural way of fighting a bacterial or viral infection. The rise in temperature is one of the body’s ways of fighting the bacteria or virus causing the illness.

Fever in babies can occur with any type of infection. It can be caused by a common childhood illness like an ear infection, chickenpox, a cold, sore throat or roseola, or – less commonly – by more serious conditions such as influenza, pneumonia or meningitis (a rare but very serious brain and spinal cord infection).

Some other things might make your baby’s body temperature higher than normal, such as vaccinations or overheating due to being overdressed.

Some parents report that teething can cause a fever, but experts haven’t found any evidence that this is the case.

Signs of a Fever

It may be difficult to tell if your baby has a fever, but if he or she feels hotter than usual, especially when you touch his or her tummy, back or forehead, it's a good idea to take his or her temperature.

Other signs of fever or a high temperature in your baby could include sweatiness or clamminess, flushed cheeks or if your little one just seems a little out of sorts.

What Is a Normal Baby Temperature?

The usual body temperature for babies and children is around 36.4 degrees Celsius, although it’s normal for this to vary between children.

A temperature of 38 degrees Celsius or higher is considered to be a fever.

Keep in mind that temperature readings can also be affected by:

  • Wearing a lot of clothes or being wrapped in a warm blanket

  • Being in a very warm room

  • Having just had a warm bath

  • Being active.

If you think anything like this is affecting the temperature reading, give your child a few minutes to cool down (without getting cold), and try taking his or her temperature again.

How to Take Your Baby’s Temperature

If you suspect your baby has a fever, it’s best to use a digital thermometer to take his or her temperature. Simply placing a hand on your child’s forehead is not a good way to gauge a fever.

For children younger than 5, experts advise against regularly using a thermometer rectally (in the bottom) or orally (in the mouth) to take a temperature reading.

The recommended way of taking your baby’s temperature is to use a digital thermometer in the armpit.

Always read the thermometer’s instructions, as different products may work differently.

As a general rule, the basic technique is this:

  • Place the thin end (the bulb) of the thermometer in the hollow of your baby’s armpit

  • Gently close the arm and hold it against the side of the body to keep the thermometer in place for the amount of time listed in the instructions

  • Remove the thermometer and read the display after the length of time specified in the instructions. Some thermometers may beep when they are ready.

Other types of thermometer are available, including ear thermometers and strip-type ones, which are placed on your baby’s forehead. You may find it more difficult to get an accurate reading using these devices.

Old glass thermometers containing mercury are no longer sold, but if you do come across one in the bottom of a drawer somewhere, don’t use it. If it breaks, this type of thermometer can release the poisonous mercury, as well as splinters of glass.

What to Do if Your Baby Has a Fever

Usually your baby’s temperature should return to normal within three or four days.

Treating your baby’s fever won’t cure the underlying infection that’s causing it, but there are things you can do to make him or her comfortable and prevent certain complications associated with a fever, like dehydration.

Here are some things to do if your baby has a fever:

  • Give plenty of fluids. Make sure your little one drinks as much as possible. Watch out for signs of dehydration, such as a dry mouth, sunken fontanelle, cold and blotchy hands and feet, fast breathing or drowsiness. If you think your baby may be dehydrated, call your doctor.

  • Don’t underdress or overdress your child. Dress your baby in normal clothes. There’s no need to remove clothing or wrap your baby in extra blankets.

  • Check your child regularly at night. Take your baby’s temperature and assess his or her general condition frequently during the night.

  • Consider giving medicine. If your baby is distressed, you may be able to lower his or her temperature with medicine. This is covered in more detail in the next section.

If the fever is a result of an infectious condition like flu or chickenpox, it’s best to keep your baby away from other children, older people and anyone with a weaker immune system.

Your doctor will be able to diagnose the underlying condition and recommend the best way of treating it.

Medicine to Reduce Your Baby’s Fever

A fever or high temperature may not require medication unless your baby is uncomfortable. Ask your doctor whether fever-reducing medicine is needed or not, and carefully follow any instructions for its use.

Aspirin should not be given to children under 16. Paracetamol may be suitable for lowering your baby’s temperature if he or she is older than 2 months, and ibuprofen can often be given after 3 months. Keep in mind, though, that it’s important to check with your doctor before giving any kind of medicine to your baby.

When it comes to dosage and how to administer the medicine, follow your doctor’s instructions and those on the patient information leaflet provided with the medicine.

When to Call Your Doctor

In many cases you can care for your baby with a temperature at home, but call your doctor straight away if

  • your baby is less than 3 months old and has a temperature of 38 degrees Celsius or higher, or is 3 to 6 months old and has a temperature of 39 degrees Celsius or more

  • your baby has a high temperature that doesn’t return to normal for five days or more

  • your baby shows other symptoms like a rash

  • you can’t lower your baby’s high temperature with paracetamol or ibuprofen

  • you think your baby might be dehydrated – signs of dehydration may include a sunken fontanelle, dry eyes or mouth, dark yellow pee or no pee at all, fast breathing or drowsiness

  • you’re worried that your baby isn’t his or her usual self.

Rarely, a fever can indicate a more serious condition, such as pneumonia or meningitis that needs urgent medical attention. Call an ambulance or visit A&E if your baby or child shows any of these symptoms:

  • Stiff neck

  • A rash that doesn’t turn white if you press the side of a clear glass firmly against it (the ‘tumbler test’)

  • Sensitivity to light

  • Drowsiness, limpness, difficulty staying awake

  • Blotchy, blue or pale skin, lips, tongue or nails

  • A bulging fontanelle

  • Trouble breathing

  • Unusual, weak or high-pitched cry

  • Having a fit (see more on febrile seizures below).

Febrile Convulsions

Rarely, a fever can trigger a type of fit known as a febrile seizure or convulsion. This kind of seizure is most common in babies and children between 6 months and 3 years of age.

Febrile convulsions typically only last less than five minutes, although on rare occasions they can go on for longer and only affect one part of your child’s body.

Witnessing your child having a febrile seizure might be one of the scariest things you can imagine; but rest assured that this type of fit is almost always harmless.

During a febrile convulsion your child may

  • twitch in the arms and legs

  • go stiff

  • roll his or her eyes back

  • lose consciousness

  • wet or soil him or herself

  • vomit

  • foam at the mouth.

If your child is having a febrile convulsion, stay calm and gently lay your child down on his or her side, on the floor – in the ‘recovery position’ if you know how – and stay with him or her. It’s a good idea to note how long the seizure lasts, so you can tell your doctor.

Don’t put anything in your baby's mouth, as there’s a risk of your little one biting his or her tongue.

When the fit subsides, your child may be sleepy for up to an hour afterwards.

If your baby has had a febrile seizure, let your doctor know as soon as you can so you can schedule a check-up.

Go to hospital or call an ambulance if

  • this is your child’s first febrile convulsion

  • the seizure doesn’t subside after five minutes

  • you think the fit might be caused by another, more serious illness like meningitis.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

  • When your baby gets a fever, most of the time he or she will be back to normal within three or four days. If your little one’s temperature shows no signs of coming down after a few days, check in with your doctor.

  • See your baby’s doctor if:

    • Your baby is less than 3 months old with a temperature over 38 degrees Celsius
    • Your baby is less than 6 months old and has a temperature over 39 degrees Celsius
    • Your baby has other symptoms, like a rash
    • The fever hasn’t gone away after five days
    • You can’t lower your child’s temperature with paracetamol or ibuprofen
    • Your baby shows signs of dehydration.
  • A fever is your baby’s natural way of fighting a bacterial or viral infection. It can be caused by common childhood illnesses like a sore throat, chickenpox or a cold, or – less commonly – by more serious conditions such as the flu or pneumonia.

It’s natural to be uneasy when your baby has a fever, but with proper home care (or medical treatment, if advised by your doctor) your baby’s fever should soon subside.

Always feel free to discuss any questions or concerns with your doctor or health visitor. It probably won’t be long before your little one is back to his or her happy self.