Recognizing & Treating Health Conditions in Babies

A photo of a newborn baby’s feet propped up by a person’s hands.

Common Newborn and Infant Health Problems and Illnesses


New parents can quickly begin to feel overwhelmed by the scope of responsibilities they must assume; from preparing the nursery to putting together the ideal birth plan to buying all the essential baby gear, becoming a parent can make for a lot of homework. One of the most important new skills parents must learn is recognizing the signs of common health issues that infants face. 


While not every symptom indicates a health crisis, newborns do require different care, and may exhibit symptoms very differently than what parents are used to. This guide will provide an introduction to some of the most common health issues infants face, and basic steps for recognizing them so you can provide appropriate relief.

Jaundice

Jaundice in newborns presents as a yellow discoloration of a baby’s skin and eyes. It occurs when the baby’s blood contains a high level of bilirubin, a yellow pigment produced during the breakdown of red blood cells. 


When in the womb, babies’ bilirubin is filtered by their mother’s liver. After birth, it is filtered by their own. However, a newborn’s liver is still developing and may be unable to remove all of the substance on its own. If their liver can’t break down the bilirubin as quickly as their body makes it, there will be a build-up of the yellow compound. For this reason, it is considered normal for babies to have higher amounts of bilirubin and it is likely the discoloration will go away on its own. Severe cases of jaundice, however, may be a result of a condition such as abnormal blood cell shapes, infection, or diseases of the liver. 

Colic

Colic is frequent, prolonged, and severe crying in an infant that is otherwise healthy and well-fed. This can be frustrating for parents, as there is no apparent cause of the condition. Some theories regarding colic include: a developing digestive system, food allergy, or hypersensitivity to their environment.


Since there is not an exact known cause of colic, there is not a known cure or treatment. Potential remedies involve calming your baby's senses, laying them in a dark room, swaddling them, or giving them a pacifier. Using sound and motion by walking, driving, or playing a white-noise machine may also help. 

Respiratory Problems

Colds, flu, croup, and sleep apnea are a few examples of potential respiratory problems in newborns and infants. Since colds and the flu are generally better-known conditions, we’ll focus more on croup and sleep apnea here. 


Croup is an upper airway infection that generally occurs in children and babies. It presents as a barking cough and occasionally as a fever, too. The infection is typical in children between the ages of 6 and 36 months. Like a cold or the flu, preventing croup involves frequent hand-washing, keeping babies at a distance from people who are sick, and encouraging proper hygiene practices, such as covering coughs with the elbow. 


Sleep apnea is a sleep-related breathing disorder that can occur in babies just as it can in adults. It consists of frequent and prolonged reductions and pauses in breathing. Parents and caregivers should listen to the baby's breathing when they’re asleep to determine if there are any potential problems. While babies may toss, turn, or cry in bed, they shouldn’t snore, gasp for air, or have generally noisy breathing.  

Anemia

Anemia occurs when the body doesn’t produce enough healthy red blood cells — which are the cells responsible for carrying oxygen throughout the body. Causes of anemia in infants and toddlers include: an iron-deficiency, premature birth, blood loss, or mismatching blood types between mother and child. Symptoms of anemia can include: pale skin, low energy, poor feeding, or getting tired during feeding. Babies usually do not need treatment for anemia, except for in severe cases. 

Vomiting

Vomiting among infants can be mild, moderate, or severe. In the case of severe vomiting, babies may be unable to hold down food and vomit consistently throughout the day. 


Some causes of vomiting include: viral gastritis, food allergy, coughing, or kidney infection. Remember that vomiting causes dehydration so it is essential that parents or caregivers replenish their bodies. 

Diaper Rash

Diaper rash is a form of inflamed skin (dermatitis) that is common in newborns and infants. It can result from wet or infrequently changed diapers, as well as chafing or infection. The rash appears as a patchwork of bright red skin on the buttocks. Diaper rash can generally be treated over-the-counter with ointments or creams, which may be a good item to keep in your diaper caddy even before you see signs of diaper rash forming, just to be prepared. Remember to check babies’ diapers often, pat dry instead of rubbing, and make sure the area is clean before putting on a new diaper. 

Cradle Cap

Cradle cap, medically known as seborrheic dermatitis, appears as crusting white or yellow scales on top of a baby’s head. 


While the exact cause of cradle cap is unknown, doctors believe that “rough patches may show up when oil glands in your baby’s skin make more oil than they need to. Doctors think the extra oil may cause dead skin cells to stick to the scalp.”

Oral Thrush

Oral thrush, also known as oral candidiasis, is a fungal infection of the mouth that commonly occurs in babies. The condition causes white or yellowish bumps to appear on the inner cheeks and tongue. This fungal infection can be passed from baby to mother during breastfeeding. Since the condition is passed back and forth, it is critical that both baby and mother are treated. A care provider can determine the right treatment for both baby and mother. 

Birth Injuries / Trauma

A birth injury or trauma is "an impairment of the neonate's body function or structure due to an adverse event that occurred at birth." Birth injuries differ from birth defects or malformations. Forms of birth injury include cuts, fractures, and head trauma, among other types of injuries. These could result from any of the various mechanical processes during birth, such as the use of forceps. 


Doctors and nurses will determine the severity of a birth injury and decide when it is safe to bring a baby home from the NICU.


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