By Professor Frank Oberklaid and Dr Leah Kaminsky, excerpt from 'Your Child's Health'
spacer spacer PInterest spacer
spacer Print spacer Email
Toddler up close looking upset
  • Hey dads


    Read info and watch short videos especially for dads, or meet other fathers in the discussion forum.

    For Fathers
How do you know when your child’s illness is minor and when it might be more serious? Here’s a guide to signs of serious childhood illness.

When to get urgent medical attention

Call the doctor straight away if any of the following happen:

  • Your baby vomits green fluid.
  • Your baby has a convulsion (fit).
  • Your baby is less than six months old and has a very high temperature (fever) of more than 38°C. (Note that a high fever is potentially much more serious in a baby younger than six months than it is in an older child. Fever in a baby younger than six months always needs medical attention, because it’s more likely to indicate a significant and potentially serious infection.)
  • Your baby stops breathing for more than 15 seconds (apnoeic episode).
  • Your baby has a lump in the groin area (hernia).
In babies and young children, illness can progress more quickly. If in doubt, seek medical advice.

Other signs of illness to watch out for

Recent research has pointed to other signs that might indicate your baby or young child should be seen immediately by a doctor.

If your child shows more than one of the following signs, seek urgent medical attention. 

Your baby is less alert than usual. She makes less eye contact, and is generally less aware of sounds and movement and of the immediate environment. The more drowsy the baby, the greater the chance of serious illness.

Decreased activity
Your baby is less active and moves his arms and legs less. He might just tend to lie around, or want to be cuddled by a parent, rather than be involved in activities that he usually likes.

Breathing difficulty
This is an important sign of a potentially serious illness. Your baby might be breathing very quickly, or grunting with each breath. She might be coughing continuously. With each breath, you might notice the muscles between the ribs being sucked in, or your baby might be blue around the mouth.

Poor circulation
Your baby might look paler than usual, and this can last for up to several hours. Your baby’s hands and feet might be cold or even blue.

Poor feeding
Your baby drinks much less than usual. Breastfed babies will suck less strongly and for shorter periods of time. Bottle-fed babies take less than half the normal amount of milk that they normally drink in 24 hours. The baby might not be very interested in feeding in general.

Poor wee output
The baby has fewer than four wet nappies in 24 hours.

The more of these signs your baby or young child has, the more chance there is that he has a potentially serious illness. See the doctor if any one of these signs is present in your child.

Seeing your doctor

If you’re worried, see your doctor.

The doctor’s job isn’t just to diagnose and treat illness – doctors are also there to reassure you that your child is well. Seeing the doctor can make you feel a lot less anxious.

You might not want to worry the doctor with what might turn out to be a trivial illness, especially at night, or if you think that the doctor is very busy. You might be anxious that your fears are groundless and that you will look foolish if your baby turns out to have a minor illness.

Most general practitioners will always find time to see a child if the parents are worried. Most accredited GP clinics allow for emergency appointments throughout the day. Make sure you have phone numbers for the clinic’s after-hours services.

If you have repeated difficulty getting an early appointment for your baby to be seen by a doctor, or if you are made to feel guilty for ‘wasting the doctor’s time’, it might be time to find a different doctor.

If you’re worried about your baby or young child for any reason, seek medical advice straight away.

Video Signs of serious illness

In this short video, paediatrician Dr Con James goes through the signs of serious childhood illness in babies and young children. He says you should always seek medical advice from a GP or hospital when you’re worried there’s a problem with your child’s health or when your child is very unwell.