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Help Your Baby Feel Better

Babies come into the world protected. They receive antibodies from the womb that help stave off many illnesses for the first six months or so. Those whose moms breastfeed get even more. Still, it's going to happen: Your baby will get sick at some point. And you'll probably be overwhelmed and bewildered, since she can't tell you what hurts -- all she can do is cry.

To the rescue: a guide to babies' ten most common ailments, and how to make them (and you!) feel better.


Half of all newborns come home from the hospital with a slight yellowish tinge to the skin or the whites of the eyes. It's caused by too much bilirubin, a by-product of the normal breakdown of red blood cells; babies' livers don't produce enough of an enzyme that breaks it down.

Peak age: Typically starts two or three days after birth, often becomes worse over a few days, and disappears by the second week as the liver functions more efficiently.

What to do: Usually nothing, other than inform your doctor -- most cases go away without treatment and without harm. Indeed, bilirubin, a powerful antioxidant, may protect newborns in these vulnerable first few days. Your doctor will examine your baby to determine whether he's in the minority of cases that do require treatment, often because of an underlying infection.

Not sure whether he has jaundice? Try this home test: Press your fingertips on your baby's forehead or the tip of his nose, then release; if the skin appears white, he's jaundice-free, but if the skin is yellow, he may have it. For a darker-skinned baby, look on the inside of his lip for a yellowish tinge.

Ear Infections

When bacteria or viruses infect a child's eustachian tube, they can cause swelling, pressure, and pain behind the eardrum. This often occurs after a cold.

Peak age: From 3 months to 3 years, when the position and size of the eustachian tube make it more susceptible to fluid buildup. Two out of every three children have had at least one ear infection by their second birthday.

What to do: Give pain and fever medication, such as infant acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin); avoid aspirin. Apply a warm compress or a hot-water bottle to her ears for pain relief. Call the doctor if your baby is under 3 months and has developed a fever, or if she appears to be in severe pain. Kids over 2 often get better on their own, so you may want to call your doctor but tell him you don't mind waiting to see if the infection clears up without antibiotics. Babies and toddlers under 2 usually do need antibiotics.


One out of five babies cries loudly and is difficult to comfort, usually for three or more hours at a time, often in the evening. Although it's not an illness -- just a stage that some infants go through -- it can drive parents crazy.

Peak age: Typically begins at 2 to 4 weeks; 85 percent get over it by 3 months.

What to do: Swaddle your baby, rock him gently, give him a pacifier, and, if you're breastfeeding, eliminate caffeine from your own diet. Walk with him or take him for a ride in the car. These steps may calm your infant -- and perhaps you, say experts. But see the doctor to make sure nothing else is causing the crying, such as an ear infection, a sensitivity to cow's milk, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), in which stomach acid creeps into the esophagus, producing heartburn. And call immediately if he vomits or if there's mucus or blood in his poop; these can be signs of an intestinal obstruction, though this is quite rare.

Common Cold

Infants will get between six and ten of these viral infections in a year.

Peak age: Your baby's first cold will probably occur at 1 to 3 months -- just the first of many she'll have throughout childhood!

What to do: Keep her comfortable, give her plenty of fluids, and make sure your house isn't too dry. Talk with your pediatrician before giving your infant any over-the-counter cold medications. And call the doctor if your baby is under 3 months and gets even a mild cold; young infants are more susceptible to such complications as pneumonia. For older babies, call the doctor if she's running a fever higher than 103°F, if symptoms don't improve in five days, if a cough lingers longer than two weeks, or if she seems to be in pain.

A note on sore throats: They're usually viral in children under 2 -- and thus don't respond to antibiotics -- but you should call your doctor if one lasts more than a few hours. She can quickly determine whether it's strep (a bacterial infection that, if left untreated, could lead to serious complications, including rheumatic fever).


The most common type ("atopic dermatitis") produces a red, itchy rash with bumps -- most often on the cheeks, scalp, and forehead -- that can ooze with fluid. It occurs most often in babies prone to allergies; it's not contagious and won't leave scars.

Peak age: First symptoms surface between 2 and 6 months and often disappear (or lessen) from a few months later to 3 years.

What to do: Apply moisturizing lotion and give your baby only short baths in lukewarm water. If a rash oozes, call your doctor, who may prescribe a steroid cream.

For moderate to severe cases, a new class of prescription ointments called topical immuno-modulators -- TIMs for short -- has been shown to clear up the condition most of the time. They don't have the potential side effects of steroids.

Umbilical Hernia

Some babies have a weakness or small opening in the abdominal wall muscles around the belly button that lets a bit of the intestinal tissue protrude when they cry or cough.

Peak age: Often present at birth but may not become apparent until later -- coughing or straining may cause it to stick out more. More common in premature, low-birth-weight, female, and African-American babies.

What to do: Most cases that appear before 6 months heal on their own by 12 to 18 months. No special home care is needed -- the folklore treatment of binding the infant's abdomen won't help heal the hernia and could be harmful if it's done too tightly. But call the doctor if your baby seems to have severe abdominal pain; surgery may be needed, especially if the hernia is getting bigger at 1 to 2 years old, says Regina Milteer, M.D., a pediatrician at Inova Fairfax Hospital for Children, in Falls Church, Virginia.


This is usually caused by a virus (especially a rotavirus); it generally runs its course in three to six days.

Peak age: Can occur at any time in infancy; kids under 5 may have two or three bouts a year.

What to do: Have your child drink an electrolyte-replacement fluid (Pedialyte, Infalyte) for the first 12 hours, to restore water and essential salts.

As he recovers, a normal diet is fine, including "binding" foods like rice, crackers, or bananas. But skip high-sugar apple juice and gelatin desserts (the sugars can irritate the bowels, causing more fluid loss), dairy products, and very hot or very cold drinks, says pediatrics professor Susan Buttross, M.D., at the University of Mississippi School of Medicine, in Jackson.

Don't give over-the-counter antidiarrheal medicines, which can mask symptoms. Call your doctor if you see signs of dehydration (lessened urination, dry mouth, sunken eyes, few tears) or if diarrhea lasts for more than two or three days. Call at once if your baby is vomiting for more than a few hours or is younger than 3 months and has a fever of 100.4°F or more.


This infection of the lung's smallest passages, usually caused by the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), produces rapid, shallow breathing.

Peak age: 4 to 7 months.

What to do: Give fluids, make sure the house isn't too dry, or use a cool-mist humidifier in her bedroom. Watch symptoms carefully: Most cases get better in a few days, but about 125,000 infants under 1 are hospitalized each year to receive fluids or oxygen. Serious cases can also increase the risk of asthma. If your child's coldlike symptoms rapidly worsen and her breathing becomes faster and labored, seek emergency medical help.


After a cold, an infection of the windpipe and the voice box can develop. The symptoms include a seal-like dry, barking cough and noisy breathing. It often gets worse at night.

Peak age: 6 months to 3 years.

What to do: Steam helps; run a hot shower and sit elsewhere in the bathroom. Oddly enough, cold air may help too: Take him outside for a few minutes. Also have him drink plenty of fluids. But call the doctor (or 911) if his breathing doesn't improve and he seems to be straining to breathe, or if his lips turn bluish or grayish -- it could be pneumonia or bronchiolitis instead.

Cradle Cap

These thick, scaly patches of skin that form on a baby's scalp and sometimes on the forehead are common, harmless, and not contagious.

Peak age: 1 month, though it may continue until 6 months.

What to do: It'll disappear on its own, but you may speed the process by washing your baby's hair daily with mild baby shampoo, then toweling it dry. Or use your fingertips to gently rub away the extra layers of skin that form cradle cap. Call the doctor if the condition persists for more than eight weeks, especially if it spreads to the face, neck, and behind the ears; she may recommend a potent medicated shampoo.

Richard Trubo contributes to the American Academy of Pediatrics parenting guides.

Colic: Moms Helping Moms

Sometimes pediatricians can find a medical cause for colic, but more often they'll tell parents to just wait it out. It's true that most babies outgrow colic in a few months. Yet even though it's a normal phase for some babies, it's not an easy one - for anyone."I was flattened when my son had colic two years ago," says Leigh Samuels of New York City. "Miserable. And lonely." She was told that Justin, then 2 weeks old, would get over it, "but all the rationalization in the world doesn't help a mom whose baby is crying all the time." So she concocted some folk aromatherapy remedies she'd heard about and tried them out on her son. She discovered a few that seemed to soothe his tears - and her own frustration.Then one day in the park, Justin, at the time 10 months old and much better, crawled over to check out the toys of a little girl, Jade, also 10 months. Samuels started talking with the girl's mother, Sharon Lowe. The women soon realized they had a lot in common, not least of which was their experience with inconsolable babies. They became friends and decided to start a company, Colic Calmers, featuring a line of products designed to relax infants and give moms a chance to breathe.The products don't promise cures, just a little help. The Serenity Kit includes a nonfoaming bath powder and gel, a spritzer, massage oil, and tea (for Mom, but fine in small doses for babies). The Sanity Kit has a swaddling blanket, a CD of soothing piano music, and a logbook to help moms communicate better with their child's doctor. (All the product ingredients are recognized as safe by the Food and Drug Administration.) Each kit costs $35 on the company website: Individual items are also available.To test the kits, Samuels and Lowe enlisted dozens of other moms with colicky babies, who responded to the products -- and the chance to talk -- with relief. The website also provides a message board for moms to share experiences, plus a "find a friend" tool to help them locate others nearby. That mom-to-mom community may be the most healing potion of all. -Sarah Smith

What the Heck Is That Rash?

...and other disconcerting moments from moms who've been through the first year:

"We used to be freaked out by the little red bumps that would sprout on Teddy's torso when he had a cold - was he allergic to the medicine? Stricken with eczema? Then our pediatrician explained it was a postviral rash."-Andrea Messina, Lifestyle Editor

"I was washing my daughter's face when she swallowed some soap and started blowing bubbles. I was so scared that I called Poison Control - but the expert laughed and told me not to worry. Now, every time Sarah blows bubbles on her own, my husband jokes, 'Hurry, call Poison Control!'"-Darci Bolner, Luther, OK

"The first time I had to use my baby thermometer - I was a typical worried, nervous mom - I realized my thermometer was only in Celsius! Here we were, my husband and I, in the middle of the night, with a hot and eerily quiet infant - searching online for the mathematical equation to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit."-Ruth Nightengale, Director of Sales and Marketing,

"My daughter, Emily, was born with a full head of hair. Then I started to notice stray strands on the sheets in her crib. Within six months she'd lost half the hair on her head - I was so surprised to find my little baby going bald! But I found out it's perfectly normal."- Jennifer Roush, Mars, PA