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Parenting

Ask the Expert: When to Call the Pediatrician

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As a mom, you know best when it comes to your child. But, when sickness strikes, it can leave even the most seasoned momma feeling confused and overwhelmed. If you’ve caught yourself wondering when to call a pediatrician for a fever or other illness, you’re not alone. 

Babies and toddlers seem to be magnets for it all, whether it’s the sniffles, a rash, diarrhea, or a fever. We asked Dr. Lyndsey Garbi, MD of Blueberry Pediatrics, a Feeding Friendly clinic, for her expert opinion on when you should call a pediatrician or when you can most likely treat your little one’s illness at home. 

When to Call Your Pediatrician

When your baby has a fever, cold, diarrhea, or vomiting, their little immune system is trying hard to fight off an illness or infection. While sometimes these symptoms can quickly run their course without a call to the pediatrician, many times, the advice of your child’s doctor and medical intervention may be needed.

In some cases, like strep throat or other bacterial infections, an antibiotic may need to be prescribed before your little one starts feeling better. 

The advice below is a general guide to help you decide whether or not you should call a pediatrician. Parents should take their child to be seen whenever they feel it’s necessary, explains Dr. Garbi— peace of mind goes a long way!

Fever

When you feel your baby “burning up” and they’re acting fussy, tired, or out of sorts, your first thought is likely to check for a fever. But what’s the best way to check your child’s temperature, and what are you looking for?

When it comes to reading your child’s fever, using the right method can make a difference. High quality ear or forehead thermometers are generally accurate, but on a very young child, a rectal temperature is helpful, says Dr. Garbi. 

A fever is any temperature over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. And for a golden rule of what temperature elicits a call to the doc? “There is no specific number at which a parent should consult a doctor,” says Dr. Garbi, “It’s always about how the child looks and feels; if they don’t look well, they need to be seen.” 

The exception is for babies younger than three months (twelve weeks), in which case you should call the pediatrician for any rectal temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.1

Cold and Respiratory Infections

It can be tricky to know which respiratory infection your child has since so many kinds, including the flu, go around each season. “They all usually come with a runny nose, congestion, and cough,” explains Dr. Garbi. 

You can keep your child comfortable by encouraging rest, giving fever or pain meds as needed, and making sure they stay hydrated. 

“If they don’t look well or aren’t tolerating fluids, that warrants a call to the doctor,” says Dr. Garbi. A prolonged fever for four or more days, respiratory distress, or lethargy (unusual drowsiness and decreased alertness) should all be addressed by a visit or call to the pediatrician as well. 

Vomiting and Diarrhea

When your baby has difficulty keeping anything in or down, it’s hard to focus on anything else. The length of time they experience vomiting and diarrhea is less of a factor than how they keep up with fluids and their appearance.

“Fewer wet diapers than usual, dry lips, sunken eyes, not willing to drink for 6+ hours is concerning,” says Dr. Garbi, as these are signs of dehydration. If your baby is very young, Dr. Garbi recommends having them evaluated by the pediatrician early on to reduce the risk of dehydration. 

Rash

Rashes can range from non-threatening and common eczema to contagious viral rashes like hand, foot, and mouth (and everything in between). Eczema and most viral rashes can be managed at home but alerting your pediatrician so that they can recommend adequate home treatments can be helpful.

“If a rash is bothering your child, if there are other concerning symptoms accompanying it, or if it doesn’t blanch (you push on it and it doesn’t go away), then your child may need to be seen in person,” says Dr. Garbi. 

Other Symptoms

Even if your baby doesn’t have something as easy to recognize as a fever or a rash, you may want to reach out to your pediatrician if your baby is acting unlike themselves. As a parent you will recognize a change in your baby’s eating and/or demeanor. 

When to Call 9-1-1 

Sometimes a medical emergency is obvious, but other times we can be left wondering if a trip to the emergency room is more appropriate than a call to the pediatrician. Here are some potential symptoms that could warrant immediate medical attention, according to Dr. Garbi:

  • Lethargic and not interacting
  • Dehydration
  • Potential choking
  • Swallowing a magnet or button battery
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Excessive drooling
  • Neck pain or a stiff neck
  • Seizure activity
  • Inconsolable pain
  • Fever for four or more days

Common Questions About Calling A Pediatrician

When should you start calling pediatricians?

Deciding on a pediatrician for your baby before they’re born can help you have more peace of mind as you get closer to meeting your little one. Start calling pediatricians to decide on a provider around three to five months before your due date.2

How high does a fever have to be to call a pediatrician?

There is no specific temperature your baby’s fever needs to reach before calling your pediatrician. If they’re acting differently or don’t look well, even with a small temperature, it’s a good idea to call a pediatrician. 

How do I know if my baby isn’t feeling well?

You know your child better than anyone. Not acting like themselves, crankiness, and not taking feedings like usual are all good indicators that your baby is not feeling well, says Dr. Garbi. 

When should I take my fussy baby to the doctor?

Fussiness could be teething or the beginning of a cold, but if you can’t figure it out, your child is inconsolable, and you’re concerned, it’s always a good idea to call the doctor, Dr. Garbi suggests. 

When to call 911 for my baby

Extreme lethargy, inability to arouse or decreased alertness, suspected choking, difficulty breathing, excessive drooling, seizure activity, and inconsolable pain are all reasons to call 911. 

The Bottom Line

As a new or seasoned parent, it can be confusing to know when to call a pediatrician for a fever, rash, diarrhea, vomiting, or any other illness. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to calling your doctor for most of your children’s illnesses, so use this guide as a starting point. 

Many times, calling the pediatrician can give you peace of mind knowing you’re on the right track to helping your little one feel better. 

Dr. Lyndsey Garbi, MD is the Chief Medical Officer of Blueberry Pediatrics and mom to three children. Blueberry Pediatrics has partnered with Bobbie as a Feeding Friendly clinic that is committed to supporting all feeding choices and assuring that no parent feels shame or guilt about how they feed their baby. 

Resources:

  1. Mayo Clinic | Sick Baby? When To Seek Medical Attention
  2. Boston Children’s Hospital | Ten Questions to Ask When Choosing a Pediatrician For Your Family. 
The content on this site is for informational purposes only and not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Discuss any health or feeding concerns with your infant's pediatrician. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay it based on the content on this page.
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The content on this site is for informational purposes only and not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Discuss any health or feeding concerns with your infant’s pediatrician. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay it based on the content on this page.

Author Kelsey Lorencz

Kelsey Lorencz is a mom of two, registered dietitian, freelance writer, and nutrition consultant. You can find her work published in various national outlets including Healthline, Livestrong.com, and Eat This! and quoted as a nutrition expert in Women's Health, Verywell Health, Eating Well, and more.