3 baby illnesses that can be hard to spot

While it’s easy to diagnose a cold or rash, it’s a little trickier to tell when your baby has a headache or an ear infection…


It’s easy to tell when your baby has a cough or a rash, but there are other baby illnesses not so easy to pinpoint. This is when you’ll need to rely on these signs to get to the root of the problem.

ALSO SEE: 6 common baby ailments sorted

Here’s how to spot a headache, ear infection and UTI in your baby:


This is one of the harder baby illnesses to pick up. While headaches in children may not be the same as what an adult experiences, how your baby reacts could be a lot different to the way you would when your head hurts.

Signs to look out for

The signs of a headache will vary depending on the cause and your child’s age. Older children who can say what’s wrong may complain of a headache, which means you can then ask about other symptoms like whether or not their tooth is sore or their ear hurts.

In children younger than two years, they may well have a sore head and express it through a few signs, but the important thing here is to know what is causing the headache. This will help you identify this baby ailment.

Look out for these symptoms:

  • Crying
  • Holding his head, or trying to hold his head
  • Pulling at his ear
  • Banging his head
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Low energy
  • Waking in the night
  • Your older child might complain of not feeling well.


Rarely, a headache is caused by a serious illness like meningitis or a brain condition. Some of the more common causes of headaches include:

  • A cold, flu or ear infection
  • Hunger
  • Stress or anxiety
  • Teething
  • A head injury
  • A genetic condition (headaches can run in the family)
  • Dehydration.


With rest and sleep, your little one’s headache should go away within an hour or two. In the meantime, make sure he takes in plenty of fluids and place a cool washcloth on his forehead to ease the discomfort. If he seems to be in a lot of pain, ask your paediatrician or pharmacist for pain-relief medication.

When to see the doctor

  • Neck stiffness
  • Bulging fontanelle (the soft spot on your baby’s head)
  • Lethargy – not just if he is a little sleepier than normal, but if it remains difficult to rouse him
  • Persistent or recurrent symptoms suggesting pain in the head or elsewhere.
  • Change in behaviour or a regression in development or a new squint.

Ear infections

According to WebMD, about three quarters of children will get an ear infection by the age of three. “Children under the age of three years are most susceptible to ear infections because they don’t have strong immune systems. They haven’t been exposed to many of these germs before, so it takes them a little longer to fight them off,” says Jennifer Shu, a paediatrician in Atlanta in the US and the editor of American Academy of Pediatrics Baby & Child Health.

It’s very difficult to spot an ear infection in your baby, especially because he’s not able to tell you he’s in pain. “Fever may come with an ear infection, but not always,” says Jennifer.

Look out for these symptoms:

  • Sudden ear pain
  • Fever
  • Crying and fussing
  • Irritable or listless
  • Poor appetite
  • Having trouble hearing
  • A clingy child
  • Fluid draining from the ear
  • Poor sleeping at night.

ALSO SEE: 3 common newborn illnesses to look out for


An ear infection is the inflammation of the middle ear, usually caused by bacteria, and occurs when there is a fluid build-up behind the eardrum. This often happens after your baby has had a sore throat, cold or upper respiratory infection.

According to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), if the upper respiratory infection is bacterial, the same bacteria may spread to the middle ear. However, if the infection is caused by a virus (such as a cold), the bacteria may move into the middle ear as a secondary infection, which will then cause build-up behind the eardrum.

We all have a canal called the Eustachian tube that connects the middle ear to the back of the throat, which helps equalise pressure. The throat and nose provide a moist breeding ground for bacteria. As your baby’s Eustachian tube is short, wide and horizontal, any germs that may be lurking can travel easily through it, which can then be trapped in the middle ear.


The good news is, most mild cases of an ear infection can be treated at home. However, if your child’s infection is severe or if he is under the age of two, you may need to get a prescription for antibiotics from your paediatrician.

For minor ear aches, try this:

  • Place a warm, moist compress, like a damp facecloth, over your child’s ear for 10 to 15 minutes.
  • If your baby is older than six months, paracetamol may help relieve pain and fever. Use as recommended by your healthcare provider. Never give your baby aspirin.
  • Keep your baby hydrated. Offer him fluids or breastfeed.

When to see the doctor

  • If your baby is younger than six months of age.
  • If your baby has a fever of 38°C or higher.
  • If your baby is crying inconsolably.
  • If it looks like your baby’s ear is sticking out, if there is swelling, or you notice any ear drainage.

Urinary tract infections

According to WebMD, up to 8% of girls and 2% of boys will get a urinary tract infection by the age of five. It can be very difficult to spot a UTI in children as symptoms are very vague and your young baby won’t be able to tell you he’s experiencing discomfort.

Experts say it’s important to identify and treat a UTI as soon as possible, as it can turn into a more serious kidney infection. UTIs are common in children, but with the right treatment your little one will feel better in just a couple of days.

Signs to look out for

The symptoms of a UTI are often clear in older children. The main symptoms include pain in the lower belly, back or side and an urgent need to urinate more often. However, when it comes to your baby, you’ll need to be much more observant. General symptoms of a UTI in babies include fussiness, a poor appetite and a fever.

Other symptoms:

  • Burning or pain when your child urinates
  • Foul-smelling or cloudy urine
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Irritability
  • Lethargy or a lack of energy
  • Poor weight gain.


According to The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK, most UTIs in children are caused by bacteria from the digestive system entering the urethra. For example, babies can sometimes get small particles of faeces in their urethra when they poo in their nappies – especially when they move around a lot during a nappy change.

When to see the doctor

While UTIs are usually not serious, it’s best to contact your paediatrician as soon as you suspect your little one might have a urinary tract infection so it can be treated in time to reduce any serious complications.

How to prevent a UTI

  • Change your baby’s nappy often to avoid bacteria from spreading.
  • Girls should avoid perfumed soaps and bubble baths.
  • Make sure your little ones drink plenty of fluids. This will help flush any bacteria from the urinary tract.

ALSO SEE: 5 common baby genital health problems

*Article reviewed by Dr Judy Rothberg, a mother of two girls and a paediatrician at Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital in Johannesburg.

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