Taking Care of a Sick Child 101

Paige Geis Bradshaw

Coughs and fevers and runny noses, oh my! If you’re a parent to little ones, you’re undoubtedly no stranger to these symptoms.

There’s a reason for that! It’s completely normal, even expected, for children to get sick every now and then.

But when does “every now and then” become too frequent? It’s painful to see your child suffer through sickness, no matter how mild their illness may be. When should you care for them at home, and when is it time to call the doctor?

We’ll tackle the answers in this article! Here’s the curriculum for today’s class: taking care of a sick child 101.

Why Do Kids Get Sick So Often?

Children learn about the world in an extremely physical way. Babies and toddlers crawl all around, grabbing anything their tiny hands can clutch. They roam from room to room, touching the floors we walk on, then putting objects into their mouths every chance they get.

From floor to mouth to eyes to nose, young children touch everything. And because they’re small and still learning, they haven’t quite grasped the importance of hand hygiene and other healthy habits.

Plus, kids’ immune systems are hard at work! Without exposure to illness, your child’s immune system would remain weak. Every time your child gets sick, their immune system only becomes stronger. (That’s a good thing!)

According to Dr. Nipunie S. Rajapakse, pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Mayo Clinic Children’s Center, little ones can have as many as 12 colds every year without raising alarm. Here’s what she had to say in response to the question, “why do kids get sick so often?”

On average, you’ll probably see between seven and eight infections a year. This number may be higher for children who are in child care or when they start school. It’s also typical for kids to have symptoms lasting up to 14 days. And sometimes a cough can last up to six weeks. That means kids can be sick for a majority of the year and still have a pretty typical immune system.

What a relief!

How to Care for a Sick Child at Home

When the late-night tummy trouble or dreaded sniffle strikes again, your child will likely be able to recover at home. There’s nothing a little over-the-counter medication, lots of liquids, and plenty of rest can’t do to cure the standard stomachache or common cold!

If it’s been a while since you’ve had a sick child or you’re new to the game, here’s how to care for a sick child at home.

Listen to Their Needs

Your child will know what their body needs. If they don’t want to lie in bed, let them lie on the couch or sit at the table instead. As your child’s illness ebbs and flows throughout the day, follow their lead and adjust to their changing needs.

Encourage Rest

Sleep is critical to healing and restoring our bodies, especially when we’re not feeling our best. Allow plenty of time for sleeping in, long naps, and restful, slow-paced activities. If your child is struggling to sleep through their sickness, try using a white noise machine, playing soft music, reading to them, or having them sleep at an incline.

Keep Them Hydrated

We lose a lot of fluids when we’re sick. From sweating through fevers to vomiting and diarrhea, replenishing what’s lost with clear liquids—ideally water—is essential to recovery. After the first day or two, incorporating other liquids such as milk, sports drinks, soups, and broths can also keep your child hydrated.

Let the Air Flow

Your child may experience changes in body temperature while they’re ill. If they’re feeling warm, ramp up the air conditioning or put a fan in their bedroom to keep them cool. If it’s chilly outside, you can open a window to help them cool off, too.

If they’re feeling cold, you can bundle them up with blankets, bring in the space heater, and serve them warm drinks and soups to heat them up.

Give Extra Comfort

A warm bath, bonus TV time, sticker books, and other small treats can go a long way in healing and uplifting your sick child. Maybe a little extra time playing around on their Troomi phone would help, too!

Treat Symptoms with Medication

When necessary, consider giving your child over-the-counter children’s medication to treat their fever, discomfort, or pain. Just be sure to read the drug facts to ensure your child is receiving the appropriate dose.

When to Call the Doctor

With minor illness being relatively routine for young children, taking it easy at home is usually the appropriate course of action. But there are times an illness may escalate to something more serious, requiring medical attention.

Keep an eye out for these symptoms. If they occur, seek medical attention.


Call the doctor…

  • If your child is younger than three months with a temperature of 100.4°F or higher.
  • If your child is between three and six months with a temperature of 102°F or higher.
  • If your child is between seven to 24 months with a temperature of 102°F or higher that lasts longer than 24 hours.

Also seek medical care if your child has a fever that lasts longer than three days—regardless of age or temperature—or is accompanied by:

  • Repeated vomiting
  • Headache or seizure
  • Stomach pain
  • Sore throat
  • Confusion or irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble with eye contact


Call the doctor if your child is vomiting and experiencing the following symptoms:

  • Head trauma
  • Severe abdominal pain


Seek medical care if your child has diarrhea paired with the following symptoms:

  • Lethargy
  • Refusal to drink
  • Blood in stool

Difficulty Breathing

Head to the doctor if your child has difficulty breathing as well as the following symptoms:

  • The skin between your child’s ribs is sinking in
  • Flared nostrils
  • Skin is pale or gray in color
  • Persistent coughing


Get medical attention for your child if they have a headache and the following symptoms:

  • Head trauma or seizure
  • Repeated vomiting
  • Blurred vision
  • Weakness in extremities

Staying Healthy While Caring for a Sick Child

When your child is sick, you’re not only worried for their health and safety—you’re worried about the health and safety of everyone in the house. When you have a full house, illness can be a big stressor!

Try these tips for staying healthy while caring for a sick child:

  • If possible, designate one person as the sick child’s caregiver. This will reduce exposure.
  • Keep your sick child in their own room as much as possible to prevent their illness from spreading.
  • Use disinfectant wipes and sprays where your sick child has been, particularly in common areas.
  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Wash your sick child’s clothes, bedding, blankets, and other fabrics in hot water. Hot water is more effective at killing viruses and bacteria than cold water.

To keep your child and yourself mentally well during periods of physical sickness, try these activities:

  • Playing card or board games
  • Reading books
  • Watching movies and TV shows
  • Eating special snacks
  • Drinking with crazy straws
  • Building with blocks
  • Putting puzzles together
  • Using coloring or sticker books
  • Making LEGO masterpieces
  • Doing crafts

Caring for a sick child can be mentally and physically taxing. Sometimes, it can even be scary! But don’t worry, you’ve got this. And soon enough, your baby will feel good as new.

For more parenting tips and advice, check out our library of resources.