When to Call Your Child's Healthcare Provider 

When your child complains of a sore throat, stomachache, or headache, you worry. You want to do whatever you can to help your child feel better quickly. Sometimes, you call your child's healthcare provider for advice and sometimes you call for an appointment. But how do you know when you should care for your child at home and when you should call? Of course, if you are not sure, it is always OK to call. 

A child’s age helps to figure out when to see the healthcare provider. For example, a fever at a certain level may be reason to see the healthcare provider for a baby, but not for an older child. 

For babies: When to call

Call your healthcare provider if your baby has:

  • A fever (see Fever and children, below)

  • Trouble feeding or sucking or no interest in feeding

  • Sleeping too much or too little or having trouble getting your baby to wake up

  • Not moving much, or crying that is different than usual

  • Vomiting or diarrhea for more than a few hours

  • Changes in the baby's soft spot on the top of the head

  • Trouble breathing

  • Rash on the skin

If your baby has any of the above warning signs or if you feel something isn't right, call his or her healthcare provider. 

For children: When to call

Call the healthcare provider if your child has:

  • A fever (see Fever and children, below)

  • A fever in a child who has a weakened immune system from a health condition or medicine

  • Seeing or hearing things that aren't really there (hallucinations)

  • Stiffness of the neck, a really bad headache, ear pain, or pain in the stomach

  • Trouble breathing

  • Swollen or sore joints

  • Persistent vomiting or diarrhea

  • Painful urination or blood in the urine

If your child is not feeling well, but doesn't have any of the above warning signs, he or she will most likely feel better with some extra rest, healthy drinks, and some additional cuddling. But if symptoms worsen or don't go away, or if your child isn't eating, playing, or drinking, call your child's healthcare provider. And remember to always follow your parenting instinct. If you feel something's wrong, you are probably right and should call the healthcare provider.

Fever and children

Use a digital thermometer to check your child’s temperature. Don’t use a mercury thermometer. There are different kinds and uses of digital thermometers. They include:

  • Rectal. For children younger than 3 years, a rectal temperature is the most accurate.

  • Forehead (temporal). This works for children age 3 months and older. If a child under 3 months old has signs of illness, this can be used for a first pass. The provider may want to confirm with a rectal temperature.

  • Ear (tympanic). Ear temperatures are accurate after 6 months of age, but not before.

  • Armpit (axillary). This is the least reliable but may be used for a first pass to check a child of any age with signs of illness. The provider may want to confirm with a rectal temperature.

  • Mouth (oral). Don’t use a thermometer in your child’s mouth until he or she is at least 4 years old.

Use the rectal thermometer with care. Follow the product maker’s directions for correct use. Insert it gently. Label it and make sure it’s not used in the mouth. It may pass on germs from the stool. If you don’t feel OK using a rectal thermometer, ask the healthcare provider what type to use instead. When you talk with any healthcare provider about your child’s fever, tell him or her which type you used.

Below are guidelines to know if your young child has a fever. Your child’s healthcare provider may give you different numbers for your child. Follow your provider’s specific instructions.

Fever readings for a baby under 3 months old:

  • First, ask your child’s healthcare provider how you should take the temperature.

  • Rectal or forehead: 100.4°F (38°C) or higher

  • Armpit: 99°F (37.2°C) or higher

Fever readings for a child age 3 months to 36 months (3 years):

  • Rectal, forehead, or ear: 102°F (38.9°C) or higher

  • Armpit: 101°F (38.3°C) or higher

Call the healthcare provider in these cases:

  • Repeated temperature of 104°F (40°C) or higher in a child of any age

  • Fever of 100.4° (38°C) or higher in baby younger than 3 months

  • Fever that lasts more than 24 hours in a child under age 2

  • Fever that lasts for 3 days in a child age 2 or older