A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Is your baby sick? Know these non-verbal cues

Mother holding a sleeping baby's hand in her arms - Non-verbal signs and symptoms

You know your child better than anyone, and you can learn to rely on your power of observation and on your instinct to determine when your child may be sick.

It’s normal for parents to feel anxiety over determining whether their baby or toddler is sick.

It can be especially stressful when your child is too young to tell you in words what hurts and where.

Dr. Jeff Clark, a Marshfield Clinic Health System pediatrician, advises parents to “trust your gut feeling that something might be wrong – you will probably be right that there is a problem, and your child’s doctor or nursing staff can help you determine how big a problem it is.”

“I hear parents say, ‘I’m not a doctor,” or ‘I’m not a nurse,’” Clark said. “Yet you know your child better than anyone, and you can learn to rely on your powers of observation and on your instinct.”

Clark said you probably notice small changes in your child’s behavior or level of activity before others do, and some of these things may strike you as not being ‘normal’ for your child. “Learning to trust and act on your observations and that feeling that something is wrong are among the best things a parent or caregiver can do to help a child who is getting sick,” he said.

Report concerns or changes sooner than later

“Start with the premise that kids want to be well,” Clark said. “Young children have nothing to gain from pretending or faking illness or injury. It doesn’t even occur to them to do so. They want to be playing, investigating, exploring.”

When a child becomes less active, caregivers need to ask themselves, “Why?”

At the same time, when the body is functioning normally, it’s generally working silently and unobtrusively. For example, normal breathing is silent and effortless.

New symptoms, such as runny nose, cough, panting, rapid breathing, grunting or wheezing are not normal and should be given attention.

Another symptom to be aware of is a persistent loss of appetite. This can accompany many types of illness, not just gastroenteritis.

The five most dangerous words in the English language are, ‘Maybe it will go away.’ It’s important not to delay reporting concerning symptoms or changes in a child’s behavior,” Clark said.

Some symptoms can have several meanings

Ear tugging may indicate an ear infection or upper airway congestion, or it could simply be nothing more than a child’s discovering and playing with his ears.

Coughing that is worse at night is most likely due to an upper respiratory problem with post nasal drip. However, equally-frequent coughing during the day as at night signals the problem is in the chest (bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma, aspirated foreign body) until proven otherwise.

Consulting your child’s pediatrician is the best way to help determine the significance of a particular symptom, Clark said.

Call when you’re concerned

“I could give parents long lists of things to watch for, but no such list can be all-inclusive. New, inexperienced parents will have more questions, but so might ‘experienced’ parents. That third child may be very different from the first two. Nothing relieves anxiety better than talking to someone with training and experience,” Clark said. “If you’re concerned, call.”

Use nurse lines to your advantage, and learn from each new experience.

Call Security Health Plan’s 24-Hour Nurse Line at 1-800-549-3174 or visit Marshfield Clinic Health System’s  Care My Way for quick treatment over the phone.

“You wouldn’t get mad at a child who missed the ball on their first swing. You’d tell them to practice. Parenting is the same way. You just need to gain experience in understanding your child’s norm.”

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