Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Changes in Behavior during Illness: Colds, Ear Infections, and The Flu

Anyone who’s explored this site should have a good idea of how babies sleep, cry, and communicate. Even though we have provided a lot of information about how and why babies behave the way they do, we know that all babies are different and that parents know their babies best. For example, we’ve explained how babies can get overwhelmed easily and that a change in routine can have an impact on their behavior, but only you know whether a long day at a birthday party will end in an extra hour or two of sleep or a night full of tears and frustration.

When a baby is sick, however, everything you know may be flipped upside down. A baby who has started sleeping through the night may suddenly start waking up several times or a baby who loves the car may scream all the way home. When a baby is sick, the discomfort can take over and cause her behavior to become unpredictable. In this post, we’ll describe the symptoms of some of the most common illnesses and how these symptoms may affect a baby’s behavior. As you are reading, keep in mind that all babies are different and that this post is not meant to diagnose any infant illnesses. If you are concerned that your baby may be ill, discuss the symptoms with your pediatrician right away.

Common Cold
Colds are caused by viruses and are highly contagious; meaning your baby (whose immune system is still developing) will probably get several colds before his first birthday. Studies indicate that many infants get 6 to 10 colds in the first 2 years of life.

  • runny or stuffy nose
  • sneezing
  • irritability
  • sore throat/scratchy voice
  • cough
  • mild fever
  • fatigue 

Colds can be particularly hard for babies because they can’t do many of the things adults do to cope with the symptoms, like blowing their noses or taking medication to relieve discomfort. When a baby has a cold, the nasal discharge will be slightly colored (sometimes brightly colored) and thick. You may be able to tell if his throat is sore if his cries sound hoarse and if he has trouble swallowing. The combination of stuffy/runny nose and sore throat can make eating unpleasant, so some babies have a decreased appetite when they have a cold.

Even though there is no cure for the common cold, there are things you can do to make your baby more comfortable, like using a bulb syringe to relieve nasal congestion and keeping a humidifier in the room where the baby sleeps. Remember, you should NEVER give your baby medication without first consulting the doctor.

Ear Infections
Ear infections can be caused by a virus or bacteria, and may or may not coincide with cold or flu-like symptoms. Infants and children tend to get more ear infections than adults because their ear canals are much smaller, so fluid can’t drain out as easily.

  • Irritability
  • trouble sleeping
  • fever
  • loss of appetite
  • tugging at ear
  • ear pain when lying down
  • fluid drainage
The symptoms of an ear infection vary greatly from baby to baby and even from infection to infection in the same baby. Because the infection usually causes pressure and/or pain in the ear, parents commonly report that their infants become fussy when lying down. Although tugging at the ear can be a sign of an ear infection, many babies bring their hands up to their ears to help soothe themselves or just to play and others never seem to tug on their ears, even when they are infected, so it can be a misleading symptom. My oldest daughter has had several ear infections, but I have never noticed her tugging on her ears and my youngest daughter has never had an ear infection, but I see her pulling on her ears every day.

The flu is caused by a virus that spreads through the air when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. It usually occurs during the winter, but outbreaks can occur any time of year.

  • fever
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • chills
  • body aches
  • fatigue
  • vomiting and/or diarrhea
The flu is much more dangerous for infants than it is for adults. When a baby has the flu, she may be so tired that she sleeps through feedings or so achy that she has trouble going to sleep at all. Vomiting and diarrhea don’t always occur, but when they do, the baby is at risk for dehydration. If you suspect your baby has the flu, you should call your doctor immediately. To prevent spread of the flu, vaccines are available for babies who are at least 6 months-of-age, children, and adults. More information about prevention, symptoms, and treatment of the flu is available at http://www.flu.gov/.

Unfortunately, there is no way to predict how your baby will react to any illness. In addition to the discomfort your baby is feeling, she will also be coping with a disruption in her routine. Even though caring for your sick baby can be challenging and stressful, once she feels better she should go back to her usual self.  

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