Is my baby sick or teething?

Is my baby sick? Or teething? How can I tell?

Feb 11, 2022
5 min read

If your baby seems unwell it’s important not to brush it off as ‘just teething’. Yes, teething can raise a baby’s temperature slightly and unsettle them, but a big change here is more likely to be illness.

We’ve all been there…

 It’s the middle of the night and you’re rocking your crying baby, wondering what the heck is going on.  She’s usually an awesome sleeper but suddenly she won’t feed, won’t go to sleep. You’re sure she is sick. Or maybe teething? Or, dare you think it, BOTH?! Perhaps she’s just not tired…That can’t be right because YOU’RE tired. But nothing you’re doing is settling her.

 At some point, you both do sleep.

 But then someone who has no children tells you the next day that you should have just left your baby to cry themselves to sleep, or: “you have to teach her to self settle”, “she’ll get used to being rocked to sleep”, “you’ve got to teach her who the boss is”.  And while this (unwarranted) advice may have elements of truth in a few cases – certainly Someone means well – DO NOT start your baby on a hard-core sleep training method the very next second.

The key thing to remember mums and dads, is when your baby suddenly starts acting OUTSIDE their normal routine, this is a big red flag.

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Isn’t it always “teething”?  

Grandmas, Great Aunts, neighbours, some medical professionals (and almost everyone else with well-meaning advice) love to blame teeth. She’s grumpy – must be teething.  She’s not feeding well – must be teething.  She’s not sleeping well – must be teething. She’s drooling – must be teething. The truth of the matter is teething is usually a very short lived nightmare that happens for a day or two right as the tooth is actually breaking through the gum and in every case you can actually SEE THE TOOTH emerging. This is the only real clue you need as to whether your baby’s discomfort is caused by teeth. If you can’t see a tooth literally exploding in your baby’s mouth, then it’s NOT teething. At around 3 months babies go through a whole lot of developmental changes that mimic teething. I hate this stage. They start to shove everything into their mouths, they start drooling up a storm – this is normal and it is barely ever linked to teething.  (It’s actually all preparation for eating solid food.)  Babies also change sleep patterns from around 4 months old and this too has nothing to do with teeth.  What their sleep patterns change from and to is a horrifying topic for another day (blog coming son!), but suffice it to say that your baby will definitely start waking a LOT more during this time.  This doesn’t mean that they’ve got teeth coming.  Or are sick.  Necessarily…

So what SHOULD you look for if you suspect your baby is unwell?  

Well, the first important thing is to make sure your baby is in a good predictable sleep and feed pattern in the first place.  We can help you with that (click here)! The purpose of this is because if anything is amiss with your littlie, it’ll then be glaringly obvious!  You’ll definitely notice if your awesome daytime sleeper suddenly starts waking after 20 minutes crying.  Or if your hungry little hippo suddenly refuses feeds.  On their own, these kinds of things aren’t always linked to sickness.  You should look at the baby holistically and take a good 48 hour chunk of time into consideration.  Aside from the obvious physical symptoms of illness (rashes, weepy eyes, a high temperature etc) you’d want to keep an eye out for any disturbances in their sleep (including falling asleep in random places or at random times or waking early from a sleep for no obvious reason), not feeding properly or refusing feeds, sudden crying/screaming, overall grumpiness, any pulling or batting of ears.  Just not behaving “like themselves”. Having your baby in a good pattern for their day certainly gives you a clear idea of what “themselves” is!

Here is what happened to me and my little Charlie (when she was around 4 months old):

I had noticed she was paying a bit too much attention to her ear and refusing to nurse on one particular side. So, I took her to the doctor, who examined her and said she was fine. She did seem happy enough and her sleep hadn’t changed at all.  A few days went by and she started doing the same thing with her ear, sort of batting it with her fist.  Perhaps she’d just suddenly discovered her ears?  It happens you know!  Then, the next day she woke earlier in the morning than she would normally – 5:17am to be precise.  I established she wasn’t too hot or cold, wasn’t hungry (tried to nurse her and she was about as disinterested as she could be!), definitely hadn’t had “enough” sleep… On that occasion I put it down to a random occurrence (that too can happen).  Then the next morning she did the same thing.  Now I was paying attention.  Later that morning she fell asleep on the floor, an hour before her nap, while I was changing her nappy.  Her lunch nap became restless and she woke crying between sleep cycles.  BIG WARNING SIGN.

If your baby is in one of our Sleep Programs, is able to self-settle and then suddenly starts waking between sleep cycles and not settling themselves back to sleep, something is keeping them from doing so.  Something is hurting or uncomfortable. The usual culprits are hunger or sickness.

The third morning Charlie woke at 5:34am and I watched her on the video monitor try and go back to sleep.  For FORTY MINUTES.  In silence mind you, she wasn’t crying.  It was then that I knew for sure something was up; something was preventing her from going back to sleep.  As soon as the medical center opened I was on the phone making an appointment.  My suspicion was confirmed when Charlie refused to nurse on my right side and then proceeded to have a super restless, super short morning nap.  True enough, the doctor found she had an infected left ear and a red throat.  Antibiotics it was.

Despite her not having an elevated temperature (I checked about a hundred times a day) and remaining reasonably happy, I was still convinced she wasn’t 100%. Since then, for the last 5 months, Charlie has had multiple ear infections. Each time, my only indication is her early waking or not resettling during the lunch nap. This baby is just so darn happy! But I am so so glad she is in a good daily pattern which means I can catch her warning signs and whisk her to the doctor before it gets too bad.

Always remember that you know your baby better than anyone.  YOU are the one who watches them almost all day long. My best piece of advice when it comes to sickness and babies is to trust your mummy instincts!  We have them for a reason.  And it is always always better to be safe than sorry – take them to the doctor to get them checked even if you think it’s nothing.  And go back, again and again if necessary. 

Can teething cause vomiting? 

If your little one is being sick, it is very unlikely that this is caused by teething. If you are worried, then it is best to check with your GP.

Can teething cause fever? 

While teething can give your little one a temperature, if the temperature is over 102°F / 38.9C, then it is unlikely to be teething that is the cause. Again, if you are concerned please see your GP or a health professional. 

*DISCLAIMER: if your baby is bleeding, injured, not responding or in urgent need of medical care phone emergency services right away.


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