Nothing can strike fear in a new mom like her child having a raging fever. We just feel so helpless and not sure why it’s happening. Is it teething? A virus, RSV? Or is the baby fever a sign of something else?
But it’s important to remember that immune systems are amazing at fighting off infection, and fevers are a healthy response to an invader. Whether due to a viral or bacterial infection, the rise in temperature can actually kill the bad guys off. (That’s also why sauna therapy is so powerful).
So fevers are generally not something to worry about… in fact, many medical associations have changed their tune about rushing to give a child Tylenol or other fever reducers. But, just like with everything, there are times when a baby fever is serious and needs medical attention.
So let’s unpack when you can baby’s fever run its course and when medicine may be necessary.
What is a normal body temperature?
The American Academy of Pediatrics states that a normal body temperature for babies is between 97 degrees and 100.3 degrees Fahrenheit. So if your child is within this window, he/she is fine.
What is a baby fever?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics if a rectal temperature shows 100.4 degrees F (38 degrees C) or higher, that’s considered a baby fever. (Rectal temperatures, while not fun, are the most accurate.)
Babies under 3 months
Fever in a small baby (less than 12 weeks old) is considered much more serious than it is for an older baby. For a baby under 3 months, any fever at all is too high and should be taken seriously. (But more on this later.)
Babies 3 months or older
Many pediatricians agree that a baby fever of 103.5-104 or higher is cause for concern, regardless of other symptoms. Anything less than that means baby’s behavior is more important in gauging seriousness.
If baby has a fever between 100.4 and 103.5 but is acting otherwise normal (plays and drinks as usual), you don’t need to worry.
If baby is acting sick, sluggish, lethargic or has other out-of-the-norm symptoms, the magic numbers for a serious fever becomes:
- 101+ for babies 3–6 months old,
- and 103+ for babies older than 6 months
How to check for a baby fever
Mamas can often tell when a fever is present just by pressing her cheek against baby’s head. You know your baby best, right? Obviously this won’t give you a hard number, but it can help you decide if more assessment is needed. If you sense something is off, or your little one feels warmer than usual, it’s time to reach for the thermometer.
Rectal thermometers are best (I know, really?)
For the most accurate assessment of body temperature, a mercury-free, rectal thermometer (where to buy) is the way to go. (Not the funnest thing for you and especially baby!) But, a rectal thermometer is best for babies 3 months or younger who aren’t moving around much yet. Add some coconut oil for lubricant, and insert into rectum a half inch, just enough to get the metal bulb in. When the thermometer beeps, pull it out and read the temperature.
How to use an oral thermometer (not how you’d think)
If you don’t have a rectal thermometer or baby is too wiggly to try it, you can use a mercury-free, oral thermometer (where to buy) under the armpit.
Place the thermometer under baby’s armpit and hold his arm against his body gently to get the best reading.
Since this method is not as accurate, you have to add 1 degree to the total temperature and may need to err on the side of caution in interpreting the reading.
How about forehead, temple, or ear thermometers?
Of course, these types of thermometers are much easier to use and some moms swear by them. In my experience, however, they can be wildly off—by several degrees—and many doctors don’t recommend them for that very reason.
For example, I’ve tested my ear thermometer (because I want an easy option too!), and one ear read 98 degrees and the other ear read 101?! I still use mine though with my kids because I’m not a stickler about numbers. Instead, I use it to alert me if a fever is probable and then focus on their behavior instead.
My baby has a fever—now what?
Call the doctor immediately if your baby is 12 weeks old or younger and has a temperature of 100.4 F (38 C) or higher. Young babies are at much higher risk of serious infection and should be evaluated right away if they have a fever.
If baby is 3 months or older, has a fever of 100.4 to 103 F, and is drinking fluids and playing normally, you probably don’t need to worry. If the fever persists for 24 hours, gets worse, or baby isn’t getting better, call the doctor. Usually a fever over 103.5 F is reason alone to call the doctor.
Fever symptoms to look out for
If baby is not acting like her normal self, you’ll want to contact your doctor immediately. Some signs to look for include:
- A pale complexion
- Lethargic or extra sleepy
- Loss of appetite
- Bad cough
- Pulling at ears or other signs of an earache
- Unusual fussiness
- Neck pain
- Vomiting, diarrhea or other symptoms of flu
Remember: Babies 3 months and older with a temperature of 101 or higher, or babies 3–6 months with a temperature of 103 or higher require a call to the doctor.
Can baby fever cause brain damage?
Nope. Despite what great aunt Gertrude says, fever doesn’t cause harm in and of itself. As we mentioned, fever is actually a sign that the body is doing its job fighting the infection.
According to Seattle Children’s Hospital, only a body temperature of more than 108 degrees F can cause brain damage, which doesn’t happen with illness. Fevers caused by infection rarely go above 105 F.
Even febrile seizures, which some children get from fevers, won’t cause any permanent harm (although they certainly aren’t pleasant!)
Safe home remedies to comfort baby
If baby’s fever is within a safe range, you can use natural remedies to make her comfortable and support her body’s ability to fight off the bug. If you’re unsure in any way though, consult your doctor.
- Nurse or liquids – Breastmilk (or formula) helps keep baby hydrated with fluids and electrolytes. If child is over 6 months, bone broth or this electrolyte drink is critical to keep baby from dehydrating. Children lose water faster than adults through fever.
- Homeopathy – If you have a trusted homeopathist that can assist you, homeopathic remedies can help. I’ve used Belladonna 30K on Paloma’s high fevers with success. Bryonia Alba is a good remedy for milder fevers with body aches. Check out this great resource for the right homeopathic remedy for your child and always check in with your pediatrician when using these medications.
- Luke warm baths – Get baby or child into a lukewarm bath for 20 minutes, every hour or two until fever breaks. You can add a 1/2 cup of Epsom salts or magnesium chloride flakes to bath water for added benefit.
- Bundle child up – Once you take child out of bath, bundle them up with clothes and blankets so he/she can regulate his/her temperature.
- Apple cider vinegar (ACV) compress – ACV is used in folk medicine as a baby-fever reducer. Soak a washcloth in diluted ACV and apply to the forehead or feet. You can also add a 1/2 cup of it to a warm bath.
- Lemon socks – Some moms swear by these! Take the juice of 1-2 lemons. Put into pan and add a few cups of water. Bring to a boil. Carefully dunk a pair of ankle length cotton socks into hot lemon water. Let slightly cool then put on child. Add a pair of longer socks on top of the wet lemon ones to keep child warm. Let them wear for 15-20 minutes.
- Healthy, nourishing foods – If baby is old enough for solids, offer easy-to-digest foods that are high in nutrition. Some ideas are pastured egg yolk with liver, fresh or frozen fruit, and homemade gummies.
- Snuggles and cuddling – Oxytocin, the feel-good hormone, is released when baby is loved on by mom and dad. Snuggles make everything better!
- Rest and sleep – There may be nothing better than getting rest and napping when we feel yucky. The same is true for baby. Keep him close so you can monitor him if you’re concerned.
Note: Never use rubbing alcohol to reduce a fever. It can become toxic when absorbed through the skin.
When a baby fever isn’t really a fever
Our body temperature fluctuates throughout the day and night. It tends to be higher in the afternoon or early evening, and lowest in the early morning. For a baby, anything between 97 and 100.4 degrees F is considered a normal variation of body temperature. It may also be as simple as this: is baby overdressed or in an overly warm room? Be on the lookout for other reasons why baby could feel warm.
Bacterial fever vs. viral fever
Believe it or not, treatment relies on knowing whether baby’s fever is viral or bacterial. Typically, fevers occur due to viral infection, such as the flu or common cold. These kinds of fevers tend to subside after 2–3 days. Keep in mind that antibiotics have no effect on viral infections and should be avoided if you’re dealing with a virus.
Bacterial infections, on the other hand, can be more serious. Fever may occur due to a bacterial infection such as a urinary tract infection (UTI), meningitis, bacterial pneumonia, or strep throat. If baby’s fever lasts longer than 3 days or you suspect a bacterial infection, consult your doctor.
Baby fever: When to give medicine
Why reduce a moderate fever if baby is feeling and acting normally? The only reason to treat a baby fever (as long as it’s within the safe ranges explained above) is if baby is uncomfortable. As they say “treat the patient, not the fever.”
So if baby is playing and drinking normally, medication may be unnecessary. But if baby is very fussy and not acting herself, medication can help her feel well enough to rest or get some food or fluid, which is the best way to start feeling better.
A few reminders for baby fever:
- Consult your doctor about whether OTC medications are OK for your baby.
- Ibuprofen isn’t recommended for babies under 6 months old, or babies who are vomiting persistently or are dehydrated.
- Aspirin should never be given to young children.
- Don’t give medicine more often than recommended or more often than necessary. Don’t wake baby to give medication, because sleep is more important. Often times, one dose gives baby enough relief to sleep well and start to recuperate.
- Doctors don’t recommend giving OTC cough and cold medicine or aspirin to babies. Stick with ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
When to call the doctor for baby fever
Call the doctor if you’re unsure about any of baby’s symptoms. Definitely call if you notice any of the following:
- Baby is pale or flushed
- Baby has fewer wet diapers
- Any kind of rash
- Baby has difficulty breathing, even after clearing her nose with a bulb syringe
- Baby seems sick and her temperature is lower than 97 degrees F. Some small babies get a low temperature when ill
- Baby is less than 3 months old with a fever of 100.4 or higher, or 3 months or older with a fever of 104 degrees F (or higher)
- Baby is acting sick and has a fever of 101 or higher for babies 3–6 months old, and 103 or higher for babies older than 6 months
Keep in mind that calling the doctor doesn’t mean you’ll have to bring baby in or that you’ll even have to give medications like fever-reducers or antibiotics. It’s just a chance for you to hear doctor’s advice and decide what you want to do. You can still monitor baby at home if the doctor doesn’t seem concerned.
How about you?
Has your baby ever had a fever? How did you handle? Please share any natural remedies that worked for you!