Minor ailments and illnesses

What’s wrong with my baby?

For first time parents especially, it can be very worrying when your baby is unwell, even if they are suffering from something which turns out to be quite minor. Talk to your health visitor if something doesn’t seem quite right to you – they’re there to support you.

Health visitor


Reflux (or why muslin squares are a lifesaver)

Sometimes, after they‘ve fed or even while they’re still feeding, babies bring milk back up. This is known as posseting or reflux. It’s completely normal for babies to experience reflux, often several times a day, whether they’re formula-fed or breastfed. Usually reflux happens because the baby’s digestive system is still developing, and it should stop by the time they’re a year old.

Some babies do suffer from more severe or persistent reflux. It’s a good idea to talk to your GP or health visitor if your baby:

  • Has reflux really frequently
  • Coughs or gags while feeding or refuses feeds
  • Is irritable during or after feeds, maybe crying excessively and arching their back
  • Seems to have a sore tummy or throat
  • Regularly vomits large amounts up to two hours after feeding
  • Is bringing up green or yellow vomit, or vomit with blood in it
  • Isn’t gaining weight

These may be signs that there’s another cause for the symptoms, such as an allergy, which will need to be checked out.

If your baby does suffer from reflux, feed them in an upright position if you can, and burp them regularly. It’s worth giving them smaller, but more frequent feeds. If you’re bottle feeding, check you’re using the right sized teat so that the milk doesn’t come out too fast.

Top tip from new mums:

Don’t go anywhere without a spare top for you and a change of clothes for your baby, not to mention muslin cloths. Vests and sleepsuits are a good choice as they’re easy to wash.

Vomiting and upset tummies

It’s normal for babies to be sick occasionally. The most common cause is a tummy bug which will only last a couple of days.Sickness and diarrhoea bugs are caught easily, so keep your baby away from others, especially children. Encourage everyone in the family to be extra vigilant about handwashing. Keep breastfeeding them or giving them formula feeds as normal so that they stay hydrated. If they seem dehydrated (signs include fewer wet nappies, sleepiness and a sunken fontanelle – the soft spot on the top of the baby’s head), contact your GP for a review.

If your baby keeps being sick, and you’re worried that something more serious is going on, contact your GP. If they seem floppy or less responsive, seem to have a stiff neck and a rash, call 999 for an ambulance or go to your nearest A&E department immediately.

Coughs, colds and earache

As little ones are exposed to different germs and build up their immunity, they get fewer colds, but in the early days they’re likely to pick up lots of coughs and colds. Usually these don’t last longer than a week, and you can help by making sure they drink plenty. If they have a temperature or are in a lot of discomfort, you may want to give them some children’s paracetamol or ibuprofen. Saline drops can also help to ease a blocked nose. Your GP, pharmacist or health visitor will advise further. Remember though, over-the-counter cough and cold remedies may be your first port of call when a cold strikes, but they’re not suitable for babies under one year.

If your baby has a barking cough and is making a harsh sound when they breathe in, they may be suffering from croup. These symptoms may go hand-in-hand with a runny nose, sore throat and high temperature. Go and see your GP who will normally advise treatment at home. However, if the symptoms are severe and your child is finding it hard to breathe, take them to accident and emergency (A&E) straightaway. Find out more about the symptoms of croup.

Ear Infections

Like colds, ear infections are common in babies. In fact, ear infections often follow a cold. Signs to look out for include your baby’s ear looking a bit red, your baby pulling or rubbing their ear, irritability and restlessness or difficulty feeding. Whether or not they have a temperature, you can treat the pain of earache with children’s paracetamol or ibuprofen. After an ear infection, you may find your little one’s hearing is affected for a few weeks. If the problem carries on, talk to your GP.

When children suffer with lots of ear infections, it can sometimes lead to the build-up of sticky fluid in the middle ear, which can affect their hearing. This is known as ‘glue ear’. Your GP will advise you about treatment.

Breathing and wheezing

Rapid breathing or panting is common in babies, even if they don’t have a cold. If your baby is breathing comfortably most of the time and there are no other signs of illness, there’s normally no need to worry. It might be that they have taken in their milk too quickly which is causing them to cough or splutter a bit, so check their feeding position and try to slow things down. It may help to hold them upright for a bit.

If your baby does have a cold or mild cough, keep an eye on them and talk to your health visitor if you’re worried. Call 999 or take them straight to A&E if their breathing is really laboured or if they look very pale or slightly blue-ish.


It’s likely you’ll be faced with a whole range of different rashes as your baby grows, but it’s important to know the difference between a minor irritation and a more serious condition like meningitis that needs medical attention straightaway.

NHS Choices has a really useful visual guide to the different rashes you may come across.

Nappy rash

Red and sore it most certainly is, but luckily nappy rash is fairly easy to treat. When nappy rash develops, the skin around the baby’s nappy area becomes inflamed, hot to the touch, and if the rash persists, small blisters can appear.

Nappy rash happens when the baby’s skin has contact over a period of time with wee or poo in the nappy, whether your baby is in re-usable nappies or disposable ones. The skin can also become sore when the nappy rubs against it. Nappy rash doesn’t always happen because a soiled nappy has been left on too long – it may be that your baby has particularly sensitive skin. Nappy rash is also more likely when your baby:

  • Is suffering from diarrhoea – the substances in poo that irritate the skin are more concentrated in runny poo
  • Has had an allergic reaction, for example to perfumed baby wipes, soap, detergent or a particular brand of nappy. Nappy rash can also be caused by lactose intolerance or a food allergy. If you think this is the cause, talk to your GP
  • Has been given antibiotics. Sometimes nappy rash is caused by a fungal infection called thrush, and taking antibiotics makes you more likely to suffer from thrush

Preventing and treating nappy rash

Make sure you change wet or dirty nappies as soon as possible. Clean the whole area thoroughly using water or fragrance-free baby wipes.  If your baby is particularly prone to nappy rash, choose a brand of nappy that is super absorbent.

Give your baby regular baths. Dry their skin gently with a towel and then give your baby some time to lie on a towel or changing mat with their nappy off so that fresh air gets to the skin. Avoid perfumed bubble bath and soap. Mild cases of nappy rash should clear up after two-three days. If the rash is severe and is causing your baby discomfort, your GP or health visitor may prescribe a special cream to soothe and treat it, as well as a barrier cream to prevent further infection.

Cradle cap

Young babies often develop scaly yellow or brown patches on their scalp, and this is known as ‘cradle cap’. Sometimes the scales flake off and the skin can look a bit red underneath. However, cradle cap is really common and doesn’t cause any itching or discomfort for your baby. Usually cradle cap clears up by itself. You should avoid picking at the scales though, in case they get infected.

There are some things you can do to reduce the scaly build-up:

  • Use a baby shampoo to wash your baby’s scalp regularly, and then brush with a soft baby brush to loosen the flakes.
  • Rub a vegetable oil onto the scales. You can leave this on overnight and then brush as before. Avoid using olive oil though, as it can damage the protective barrier on a baby’s skin.
  • If these treatments don’t work, special shampoos are available from the pharmacy. Your pharmacist will be able to advise you about which ones are appropriate. Don’t use shampoo if your baby has eczema.

If the cradle cap starts to look red and sore, consult your GP, as it may have become infected.

Useful links


Page last reviewed: 16-10-2017

Next review due: 16-10-2020