What Parents Should Know
Bringing a child into the world can be one of life’s greatest joys, but with it can also come worries about how to best care for a baby – especially for first-time parents. Though most common conditions and ailments in infants aren’t serious, some will require a doctor’s visit. By familiarizing yourself with the following health issues, you’ll know what to watch for when your infant shows signs of illness, and how to get them the help they need.
By Anna Hill
Jaundice, which is a yellow appearance of the skin, is not uncommon in newborns. The condition is caused by a buildup of bilirubin – a yellow pigment – in the blood. Bilirubin is made naturally during the breakdown of red blood cells and passes through the liver to then be excreted from the body. “Prior to birth, the mother’s liver does this for baby,” explains Dr. Heather Gilliam, a newborn hospitalist at the Children’s Hospital at Erlanger. “Jaundice often develops within the first few days of life and peaks in days three to five as the baby’s liver gets better at removing the bilirubin.”
Jaundice in most babies is mild and harmless; however, in rare, extreme situations, excessive levels of bilirubin can lead to brain damage. Because of this, newborns have their bilirubin levels monitored so that jaundice can be treated long before those levels are reached. Typical treatment of jaundice includes phototherapy (blue light therapy), formula supplementation, and in severe cases, blood transfusions.
If your baby is displaying a pattern of crying and fussiness at certain times each day, there’s a good chance that your baby has colic. “Colic is defined as excessive crying with no known cause for more than three hours per day, for more than three weeks, starting after three weeks old,” explains Dr. Matthew Campbell, a pediatrician with CHI Memorial Pediatric Diagnostic Associates. Unfortunately, there is no definitive cause of colic, which means there is no definitive treatment or solution.
Colic often resolves by the time babies reach three or four months of age, but it can last until they are six months old. When it comes to treating colic, pediatricians will first determine if there is a medical reason for it, such as formula intolerance or gastroesophageal reflux. Otherwise, common treatments include swaddling, rocking, soothing sounds and music, swinging or walking, and a warm towel placed on the baby’s belly.
As infants have immune systems that are less developed than those of older children, they are particularly susceptible to viral respiratory infections. Just as colds can be common for toddlers and grade-school children, it’s not unusual for a baby to have several respiratory infections within their first year of life. “The common cold (rhinovirus), adenovirus, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and flu are some of the most frequent we see,” says Dr. Campbell.
If your baby is showing signs of cold or flu, such as persisting sneezing, coughing, or a runny nose, it’s important to consult with your pediatrician on how to move forward. Treatment is important, as respiratory infections can progress into pneumonia in infants. Your doctor will advise you on what cold medicines you should administer, as not all over-the-counter cold medications are suitable for infants.
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, commonly referred to as SIDS, is every new parent’s nightmare, and the title alone is reason enough to understand why. Also known as “crib death,” SIDS is when an infant younger than a year old dies suddenly and unexpectedly. The lack of answers surrounding this syndrome can make it terrifying, but fortunately, there are ways of greatly reducing your baby’s risk. While some risk factors are uncontrollable, such as a family history of SIDS or premature birth, good prenatal care can lower the risk, as well as good sleep practices.
“Safe sleep practices are important and can greatly reduce the risk of SIDS,” explains Dr. Campbell. When putting your baby to bed, always have the baby sleep on their back, and have them sleep in a crib or bassinet; refrain from “co-sleeping,” or having them in the bed with you. “Be sure to also use a tight-fitting crib sheet, and don’t have extra blankets or stuffed animals in the crib or bassinet,” adds Dr. Campbell.
Complications From Prematurity
When babies are born prematurely, they have somewhat different needs than those of full-term newborns. By definition, preterm infants are born prior to the completion of 37 weeks of pregnancy, and the earlier a baby arrives, the more potential there is for some complications to arise. For example, according to Dr. Gilliam, “Preterm infants are typically smaller and have less body fat. Due to this lack of fat, premature babies have a more difficult time regulating or maintaining their own body temperature and may require assistance in an incubator.”
Furthermore, depending on just how early a baby is born, their development regarding feeding and motor skills might need to be supervised. “Many premature babies will be monitored in a NICU follow-up clinic where they are seen by various therapists for speech, occupational, and physical therapies, as well as by a pediatrician,” says Dr. Gilliam.
Monitoring Your Baby’s Health
It can be easy to worry about any health problems your baby might be having, as they can’t communicate in the same ways that older children and adults can. So, what’s important to look out for if you’re concerned about your infant? According to Dr. Gilliam, “Fever is always an important sign. Temperatures of 100.4 F or higher are defined as fevers – if a baby is less than two months old, a fever needs to be evaluated by a physician immediately.” Other signs to watch for include increased irritability, lethargy or decreased activity, poor appetite, and a decrease in wet diapers. If you notice any of these symptoms in your baby, it’s important to call your child’s pediatrician for an evaluation.
Remember to reach out to your pediatrician with any questions regarding your child’s health. “Another good resource for information is the American Academy of Pediatrics parenting website: healthychildren.org,” advises Dr. Gilliam.