The baby fog: illness

It's normal for parents to get stressed when they have sick children, but there are ways to cope with this difficult time.
It's normal for parents to get stressed when they have sick children, but there are ways to cope with this difficult time. 

This is the part of our series on 'The baby fog', which covers major challenges new parents might want to be aware of ahead of time.

Out of all the issues that can arise in the first twelve months of your baby’s life, illness is likely to be the most stressful.

The side effects of common colds and viruses – including a runny nose, congestion, coughing, constipation, diarrhoea, fever, sore throat, achy muscles, nausea and vomiting – are all bad enough, but then there’s the fact that these symptoms can prevent your child from feeding and sleeping well. Sleep deprivation and your child’s fussiness can also make the time seem worse than it actually is – and make everyone in the house stressed.

“It’s natural that stress levels rise when your baby is sick,” says Kristy Busuttil, an early childhood education expert. “General illnesses can make babies very irritable and inconsolable at times.”

Elise, mum to Max, knows what it’s like to have a young baby who’s suffering from illness. “When Max was about two months old he got tonsillitis,” she says. “My first instinct was to feel like the worst mother in the world because he was sick at such a young age – the GP had to comfort me more than she did Max.”

Babies and children should be given as much affection and care as necessary to make them feel comfortable while they recover from illness

And when several illnesses occur at the same time, or when an illness spreads through a family from, it can threaten to bring the house down. Allyson, mum to 10-month-old Charlotte, says, “Since Charlotte turned six months old it’s been nearly non-stop colds. And the three of us just somehow lived through our first family stomach flu – although I’ve never reached such a low.”

Rachel, mum to 18 month old Bethany, can sympathise. “We had a rough start when I had a secondary postpartum hamaerrohage after my Caesarean section, followed by Bethany having a urinary tract infection at seven weeks,” she says. “She screamed 24/7 and would only sleep from exhaustion. Then she got gastro and reflux at three months. There were many hospital visits.”  

Among the many minor colds and viruses babies pick up, other common complaints in the first twelve months include colic, reflux and teething. The teething process can take months, with symptoms starting as early as three months, although the first four teeth (on the middle of the top and bottom gums) may take up to 10 months to finally poke through the gums. Immunisations can make babies feel off-colour for up to a week after they’re given, too.

Because having a fever is a common symptom for many complaints, it can be hard for parents to know whether their feverish child is coming down with an illness or it’s a side effect of something else.


“Fever in children doesn’t always mean a serious illness is present; it’s the way our bodies fight infection,” Kristy explains. “However, you should always consult a doctor if you’re worried.”

In particular, febrile convulsions – where a seizure occurs with a high temperature – are something many parents don’t understand. Lack of knowledge can lead to parents jumping to many conclusions as to the cause of the seizure, including epilepsy, poisoning, or even meningitis, a quick-acting and possibly fatal bacterial infection.

Parents who’ve seen their children have a febrile convulsion often describe it as one of the most horrifying experiences they’ve ever had.

“A febrile convulsion is a fit suffered due to a child’s temperature rising quickly, not necessarily from a high fever in itself,” Kristy explains. “But it’s important to see the doctor when this happens, or to go to the hospital if it happens in the middle of the night. You need to consult an expert to rule out any underlying causes to keep your baby safe.”

Babies and young children can’t be expected to adhere to any kind of routine during an illness, and parents shouldn’t worry about creating bad sleep or eating habits at this time. Early childhood health nurses recommend that children be given as much affection and care as necessary to make them feel comfortable while they recover.

Any aids that could be used to relieve discomfort, such as vapourisers to help babies breathe better, teething gel to numb gums, children’s pain medications, and special formulas to treat reflux, constipation or diarrhea, could all be tried and tested to see what works best for your baby.

Other articles in our series on 'The baby fog': breastfeeding, growth spurts and wonder weeks, sleep issues and parenting support