Newborn health basics

Posted on October 27th, 2014

Brand new babies have immature immune systems and are susceptible to illness. Here’s what you can do to help. By Natalie Egling

Your brand-new bundle may very well turn you into a bundle of nerves, but as Professor Daynia Ballot, from the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health at Wits University, explains, most newborn illnesses are common and benign. A blocked nose, a little rash, a bit of vomiting, and constipation are to be expected, but if you’re concerned, it’s always better to consult your doctor.

Helping your baby along

“All aspects of a newborn baby’s immune system are immature – this includes her white cell numbers and function, and production of antibodies,” says Professor Ballot. “During the last trimester of pregnancy, the mother does give the foetus antibodies, which provide protection against these illnesses for the first few months of her life.”

Premature babies, however, will lack this ‘passive immunity’, which is why it’s so important for them to be breastfed, as this will help to prevent illness and infection. “Breastfed babies are less likely to have diarrhoea, pneumonia and ear infections,” says Professor Ballot.

To keep your newborn healthy, make sure she has all her immunisations.

Consulting the doc versus at-home care and cuddles

“Babies vomit!” says Professor Ballot matter-of-factly. “But vomiting is serious if there’s a large quantity, or if it’s green or blood-stained.”

Although fever is generally common, be vigilant when it comes to fever in babies under three months old. If your newborn has a fever, contact your doctor. For babies older than three months, a temperature under 38.9°C should be treated with plenty of fluids, while a temperature of over 38.9°C can be treated with Paracetamol. If the fever persists for longer than a day, contact your doctor.

Rashes, particularly dry skin and eczema, are common. But if the rash is accompanied by a fever, covers a large area of your baby’s skin, or appears infected, contact your doctor.

Eye discharge
“Babies’ eyes may have a normal eye discharge in the morning,” says Professor Ballot. “But if there’s a large quantity of discharge, or her eyes are red, seek help.”

Diarrhoea or constipation
Call your doctor if your baby’s stools are watery, or if she’s constipated for more than a few days. “Try mixing one teaspoon of brown sugar in water in her bottle, or you can insert just the tip of a paediatric glycerine suppository,” says Professor Ballot. “Don’t give your baby laxatives or purgatives.”

Lethargy, inconsolable crying, and change in appetite
“Lethargy, fits, rapid breathing, blue lips or tongue, incessant crying, and a refusal to feed, are all reasons to seek a doctor.

Tender navel or penis
Contact your doctor if your baby’s navel is tender, or if he has a red or bleeding umbilicus or penis.


If your newborn’s nappy remains dry for six hours or more, or if she cries without tears, or if her mouth is dry, consult a doctor. A sign of serious dehydration is a sunken fontanel (the soft bit at the top of your baby’s head).

Which medicines are safe?

The labels on medicines list doses for ages three months and older, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t give medicine to your newborn. Professor Ballot suggests that some are okay to use for one or two doses if your baby isn’t very ill, but not if her symptoms are getting worse. You should definitely seek medical attention if she’s showing signs of serious illness.
“Paracetamol is fine in the correct dose, but only for one or two doses,” she advises. “Normal saline nose drops are safe for a blocked nose, and vitamin supplements (in the correct doses) are safe.”

*Originally published in September 2012



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Our experienced editors work with trained journalists and qualified experts to compile accurate, insightful and helpful information about pregnancy, birth, early childhood development and parenting. Our content is reviewed regularly by our panel of advisors, which include medical doctors and healthcare professionals.