How to cope the first time your baby gets sick

Here's what you need to know about your baby's first illness—whether it's a cold, flu or something more.

Photo: Masterfile
Photo: Masterfile

Every parent remembers the first time their baby got sick. For Heather Brion, it was when her son, Adrian, was about six months old. “He had a fever and a cough and cried inconsolably,” says the Kingston, Ont., mom. “His paediatrician diagnosed a mild case of influenza, and I felt awful because there wasn’t much I could do. I sat up all night listening to him sniffle.”

About one in three infants will need a doctor’s care during an influenza infection, but not every illness needs medical attention. Sometimes, though, it’s hard for a new parent to know how serious things are. Remember: You know your baby’s temperament best, and if you feel like something is wrong, bring him—along with a list of concerns—to your doctor or the emergency room. (If your child is younger than six months old, have any fever checked out by a doctor.)

“My son couldn’t be soothed, and didn’t even want to nurse to calm down. That’s how I knew something was wrong,” says Brion. “My only regret is the nerve-racking hours before I called the doctor. That call may not have been necessary for him health-wise, but it calmed me down enough to look after him with confidence—even though I still slept beside his crib.”

If your little one isn’t feeling well, and serious conditions have been ruled out, your task is simply to get through a few days with a cranky, uncomfortable baby. But that’s a lot more work than it sounds. Here’s how to cope when your baby gets sick:

Expect clinginess
Extra cuddles may be the unexpected sweet side of your babe’s first illness—but having her attached to you all day long quickly becomes exhausting. Use your front carrier in the house and try to get out for a stroll in the fresh air, if you can. (Your arms and your mind need a break to make it through what may feel like a sanity-testing week.)

Sleep easy
Even when she’s snoozing, you’re likely to be repeatedly jarred awake by worry over her breathing or discomfort. Andrea Da Silva, a Toronto mom of two, always slept next to her kids in her bed when they were sick, so they both got the rest they needed. “If they were congested, I would sleep propped up with pillows behind me and hold them on my chest, so their nasal passages could clear,” she says.

Eat well
We all become crankier if we’re not fuelling up regularly. Your baby may have trouble drinking, but try to feed her often, and stock up on easy, healthy snacks for yourself. “I’d drink lots of ginger tea and make something easy I could eat over several days, like chicken soup with parsnips and carrots. I’d purée it for the baby, and add noodles for me,” says Da Silva.

Ask for help
If you don’t have friends or family nearby, see if a babysitter or neighbour can come by so you can grab a couple hours of shut-eye (don’t tackle housework! It can wait). You and your partner can swap shifts soothing your little patient, and take advantage of grocery-delivery services or takeout meals to save your energy.

Symptoms may last up to seven days, and while it’s a stressful time, the majority of children soldier through without complications. Their immune systems will be better prepared to deal with other infections, which leads to milder bouts of illness in the future (or prevents them altogether). “The hardest part is the first couple of days,” says Brion. “By the end of the week, I was tired, but he was in great shape, and I think we both came out of it a little stronger. I will definitely feel more confident next time around.”

A version of this article appeared in our February 2014 issue with the headline “Sick and tired,” p. 41.

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