It can be nerve-wracking caring for a newborn. They can’t tell you what they need, or whether something is wrong, and most new parents find this quite daunting. In time you will learn to understand your baby’s feeding cues, and they will develop different cries which can help you to understand what they need.
In the first few weeks and months, it can be really difficult to tell if your baby is unwell, especially if this is your first baby and you’re not sure what’s normal. In this section you’ll find lots of information on common health issues affecting newborns, and when you should seek help.
Jaundice in newborns is common. It causes yellowing of the skin of the face and upper body, and sometimes the whites of the eyes. Jaundice usually appears when the baby is 2-3 days old, although it can also occur later.
Newborns have a high number of red blood cells which are broken down and replaced frequently. This process produces a yellow substance called bilirubin, which is usually broken down by the liver. In many newborns, the liver isn’t quite mature enough to process the bilirubin so it builds up, causing jaundice. This usually improves and resolves by the time they’re around two weeks old, although it can take longer, especially if your baby was premature.
Jaundice usually resolves on its own, but some babies will need to have treatment in hospital.
If you think your baby is jaundiced, it’s important to speak to your midwife. Look out for skin or eyes that look yellow, or pale / white stools. Jaundice can make babies sleepy and reluctant to feed, which can lead to dehydration, so it’s very important that you feed your baby every three hours at least if you think your baby has jaundice.
You should call your general practitioner (GP) or midwife if:
- The jaundice seems to be getting worse
- You are struggling to rouse your baby
- They are refusing to feed
- They have fewer wet and dirty nappies than you think they should
- The whites of their eyes look yellow
- They have pale or white poo
A newborn baby’s skin is very delicate and sensitive. There are lots of things that can cause skin issues or rashes in babies and it can be hard to figure out what’s going on. NHS UK has a useful visual guide to rashes which can help you identify a rash, but if you are at all unsure about the cause or you are concerned about your baby’s health, you should seek advice from your GP or midwife.
Go to Accident and Emergency (A&E) or call 999 if your baby has a rash and the following symptoms:
- They seem more sensitive to light
- They have a high-pitched or weak cry and will not settle
- They feel very hot or very cold to the touch
- They have a fit or convulsion
- The rash doesn’t fade when you press clear glass firmly against the skin
Babies need to be fed regularly to prevent dehydration. If they don’t get enough milk, they can become dehydrated quite quickly.
If your baby experiences any of the following symptoms of dehydration you should seek medical advice from your GP, 111 or go to A&E if you are very concerned:
- The soft spot (fontanelles) on their head is sunken
- Their mouth or lips are very dry
- Their wee is very dark or contains urate crystals
- Their skin looks blotchy or mottled
- Their hands or feet are very cold
- They haven’t had a wet nappy for 12 hours
- They are refusing milk
- They are very lethargic or hard to rouse
If your baby is constipated, it means that they are struggling to poo. Symptoms of constipation in newborns include:
- Lots of grunting and straining, even if there is no po in their nappy afterwards
- Small, hard lumps of poo in their nappy
- Having fewer than three dirty nappies a week if your baby has formula, or less than one dirty nappy a week if breastfeeding
- Very smelly wind and poo
- Loss of appetite
- Their tummy seems swollen and hard
Start4Life has some great tips on treating constipation at home but if things aren’t getting better or you’re concerned, you should get advice from your GP.
It can be hard to tell if your newborn has diarrhoea, as baby poo is generally loose and runny. If your baby has dirty nappies that are more watery than usual, they might have diarrhoea and you should look out for signs of dehydration, blood or mucous in your baby’s poo, or vomiting.
Diarrhoea in babies can be caused by different things, such as:
- A virus, particularly rotavirus
- An allergy such as CMPA (cow’s milk protein allergy) or something in your diet if you are breastfeeding
- Formula that isn’t made up properly (internal link to feeding your baby)
- Food poisoning
- Antibiotics or other medications
- An underlying health issue
Your baby will receive a vaccine against rotavirus at 8 and 12 weeks, as this is the most common cause of diarrhoea and vomiting in babies. Some babies get mild diarrhoea after receiving this vaccine.
If your baby has diarrhoea, it’s important to make sure they have regular fluids to prevent dehydration, so keep feeding them, whether breast milk or formula. If your baby isn’t getting better or is refusing milk, seek advice from your GP or midwife. Don’t give your baby medicine to prevent diarrhoea.
NHS UK has advice on how to treat diarrhoea and when to seek medical advice, but always call your GP or midwife if you are concerned.
Some babies are born with an allergy to cow’s milk. This isn’t the same as lactose intolerance, which is very rare in babies. It mostly affects formula-fed babies, although in some cases it can affect breastfed babies if you eat dairy products as part of your diet.
CMPA is the most common allergy in babies, but they can also be allergic to soy, or other allergens that pass into breastmilk.
Allergy symptoms can range from mild to severe, and include:
- Green or mucous-filled poo
- Eczema and other rashes
- Severe nappy rash
- Breathing issues
These symptoms do not mean that your baby has an allergy, but if you are concerned you should see your GP. They may advise you to try and exclusion diet if you are breastfeeding, or a trial of a special formula if you are bottle feeding, or refer you for allergy testing.
Read more about CMPA.
As adults, it’s miserable when you have a cold or blocked nose, but it’s even harder for babies. Babies can’t blow their noses or choose to breathe through their mouths, and it’s also much harder for babies to feed and sleep when their noses are blocked.
Blocked noses in babies are usually caused by colds, but can also be caused by allergies, enlarged adenoids or other issues.
There are several things that you can do to help your baby if their nose is blocked:
- Saline nasal sprays or drops can help to loosen dried secretions in the nose
- A nasal aspirator can help clear snot from your baby’s nose
- Steam can ease congestion – running a hot shower and sitting with your baby in the bathroom can help
- If your baby is over 2 months old and they have a temperature or seem to be in pain, you can give infant paracetamol (ask the pharmacist for advice and always follow the dosage for your baby’s age on the packaging)
Never give your baby cough or cold medicine. There are menthol and vaporiser products available from pharmacies, but you must always check the packaging as some are not suitable for small babies.
In most cases, the congestion will pass, but if your baby has any of the following symptoms you should get advice from your GP, midwife or 111:
- Your baby is having to work hard to breathe – look out for movement in your baby’s tummy when breathing, nostrils flaring, or the skin around their ribs and at the base of their throat pulling in
- Your baby feels very hot or cold to the touch
- Your baby doesn’t want to, or is unable to, feed
- Your baby has fewer wet or dirty nappies than usual
- Your baby is wheezing or grunting when breathing
- Your baby has a fit or convulsion
- Your baby doesn’t seem to be getting better
- Your baby has a blocked nose / breathing issues all the time, even when otherwise well
When your baby is born, their skull won’t be completely fused together. Their head will have two fontanelles (also known as soft spots) – one larger diamond-shaped spot near the front of the head, and a smaller one near the back of the head. These will gradually get smaller as your baby grows and the skull fuses, and will usually disappear by your baby’s first birthday.
If your baby’s soft spot is sunken or bulging, it’s important to see your GP right away as this can be a sign of illness.
If you feel concerned, it’s best to get your baby checked out. If you see any of these symptoms in your baby, you should contact your midwife, GP or 111 right away:
- Your baby isn’t interested in feeding, or is having difficulty feeding
- Your baby is lethargic and it’s quite difficult to wake them
- Your baby has a temperature above 37.5C or below 36.5C
- Your baby is grunting, breathing very quickly or their breathing is laboured (you might see the skin pulling in around their ribs, their nostrils flaring or their stomach sucking in when they breathe)
- There are long pauses in your baby’s breathing, when they’re awake or asleep
- Your baby has a high-pitched cry, a weak cry or you cannot settle them at all
- Your baby becomes jaundiced (internal link) within 24 hours of birth
- Your baby’s jaundice becomes worse (jaundice can cause lethargy, yellowing of the eyes, reluctance to feed, fewer wet or dirty nappies, and pale or white stools)
- Your baby has not passed meconium (baby’s first poo which is very dark and tar-like) within 24 hours of birth
- Your baby has not had a wet nappy for 12 hours
- Your baby develops a rash all over their body
- Your baby’s soft spot on their head is sunken or bulging
You should call 999 or go to A&E if your baby has any of the following symptoms:
- Your baby is floppy and unresponsive
- You cannot wake your baby
- Your baby is very sensitive to light
- Your baby has a blue tinge to their lips or around their mouth
- Your baby has a pinprick rash which does not fade when a clear glass is pressed firmly against the skin
- Your baby feels abnormally cold to the touch
- Your baby’s skin is mottled or blue
- Your baby has a fit or convulsion
Vaccinations for your baby are usually given at 8, 12 and 16 weeks, and at 12 months of age. If you have any concerns about vaccinating your baby, it’s important to speak to your midwife or GP so that they can discuss them with you.
Here is a full breakdown of childhood vaccinations, including when they are given and why.