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Why Kids Get Sicker at Night

It started around 1 A.M. My son, Liam, was 14 months old, and the noises coming from his room didn't seem completely human: There was a sort of honking bark followed by a whistle-y kind of breathing. I ran into his room, my heart racing with worry, and I found him sitting up in his crib, looking scared and tired. I picked him up, took his temperature -- no fever -- and called the doctor. "It sounds like croup," the doctor said. "Wrap him up in a warm blanket, sit outside with him, and call me back if his cough and breathing don't improve in ten minutes." Huh? This was early spring in New Hampshire. Sit outside?

It had to be worth a shot. I wrapped Liam up so that only his frightened little face was exposed, put on my winter coat, and stepped onto our screened-in porch. We sat on the rocking chair, moving back and forth, looking at the stars, and listening to the croaking tree frogs. Within 15 minutes his throat gradually, miraculously cleared. The coughing stopped, his breathing sounded normal, and believe it or not, he had fallen back to sleep.

In the meantime, my husband had set up a modern version of outdoor night air -- a cool-mist humidifier -- in Liam's room. I put him back in his crib, and he slept through the night. I, on the other hand, kept checking in on him every hour or so, but that's what mothers do.

Sickness never comes at a convenient time, but when your child awakens in the middle of the night with distressing symptoms, chaos often follows. Everyone is half asleep and not thinking clearly. The doctor's office is closed, and you don't know whether you should call and wake him or try to deal with the ailment yourself. Let's relieve some of the stress of that decision right now: Anytime you think your child's health may be in serious danger -- for instance, he has a high fever and is acting poorly, has trouble breathing, has a strange rash, or is having a seizure -- call your doctor (or 911) immediately. And almost any symptom in a baby under 4 months old merits an immediate call to the doctor, no matter the time.

So what are you supposed to do the other 97 percent of the time when your child wakes up at 2 A.M. worse off than when he went to bed? Symptoms of many children's illnesses routinely worsen at night, and though there's nothing life-threatening about them, they can make your child miserable. Fortunately, with a little planning and the help of our middle-of-the-night health guide, you'll have what you need to get your kid (and you!) feeling better by morning.