Any fever above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit can be dangerous for a newborn. Learn how to treat baby fevers and when to visit the doctor.

By Nicole Harris

As any parent knows, there’s almost nothing more frightening than your baby’s first fever. It turns out that “fever phobia” is somewhat justifiable: temperatures greater than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit can lead to life-threatening infections (such as bacterial meningitis and pneumonia) in newborns less than 3 months old. But don’t panic! With the proper steps, it’s unlikely that a newborn’s fever will lead to complications. Here’s what to do when your baby has a fever.

What Causes Baby Fever?

“The most common cause of fever is infections from viruses or bacteria,” such as colds, flus, ear infections, and strep throat, says Anne Tran, M.D., a pediatric hospitalist at Kaiser Permanente in Hawaii. Believe it or not, developing a fever is actually beneficial in these cases, since it proves that your baby’s immune system is working properly to fight off the infection. Dr. Tran says that certain immunizations can also cause a temporary fever for as long as 48 hours, which is a normal response to vaccinations. In rare cases, fevers can point to brain disorders or autoimmune disorders.

What is Considered a Fever for a Baby?

Experts recommend using a rectal thermometer for anyone less than three years old age. These give a more accurate reading than oral thermometers, since you actually insert the bulb into the body (1/2 to 1 inch into your child's rectum). Any temperature above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit is considered a fever, says Lana Gagin, MD, MPH, FAAP, at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. 

Besides elevated temperature, other signs of fever in babies include:

  • Fussiness
  • Excessive sleepiness
  • Lack of appetite

It’s also important to make sure Baby isn’t actually suffering from heat stroke, which is elevated body temperature caused by overheating. Prevent heat stroke by avoiding sun exposure, especially if your baby is less than 6 months old. “ If you suspect your child is overheated, immediately move him to a cool place,” says Dr. Gagin. “Call your pediatrician or take your child to the emergency room.”

What to Do for Baby Fever

“In newborns under three months, any temperature over 100.4 degrees is considered a medical emergency,” says Dr. Tran. Babies under three months don’t have fully functioning immune systems, which increases the risk of infections like bacterial meningitis and pneumonia. It’s important she get evaluated right away to prevent life-threatening complications. 

If your baby is between 3 months and 6 months old, call the doctor for a fever over 101F.  You should also alert the pediatrician if your baby develops vomiting, diarrhea, ear pain, stiff neck, skin rash, inconsolable crying, shortness or breath, or other worrisome symptoms— or if she has trouble moving or is slow to wake. Also watch out for signs of dehydration in your baby, which include lack of tears and less than 3–4 wet diapers a day, says Dr. Tran.

Consider relieving the discomfort of a lower-grade fever with acetaminophen (for babies over 3 months) or ibuprofen (for babies over 6 months). Keep in mind, however,  that these medications temporarily mask a fever, but they won't treat symptoms. Call your doctor to discuss the proper dosage. 

Don’t overdress your feverish baby or cover him in thick blankets, “as this can prevent body heat from escaping and cause their temperature to rise,” says Dr. Tran. Consider giving him a lukewarm bath or dribbling a lukewarm washcloth over his body. Finally, let your child rest and keep him well hydrated. “And spend some extra time together. A hug from a loving relative goes a long way,” says Dr. Gagin.

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