By CELA on 4 Feb, 2020

How do you know when to seek medical help for a baby or young child?

Babies can’t tell us in words when something hurts, or when they feel sick. Sometimes there may be physical symptoms, but at other times the only change may be behavioural.

Sarah Hunsted, registered nurse and founder of CPR Kids, tells us five red flags that can indicate that a child is unwell and needs medical help.

6 red flags

There are 6 red flags that can indicate a child in your care is unwell and needs medical help. Sometimes urgently. With a more serious infection they might not have any specific symptoms until they are very unwell.

Take meningococcal septicaemia for example. The rash that doesn’t go away when you press on it (although very concerning) is not usually the first symptom you will see. Usually you will see other signs and symptoms first, like the ones below. As carers and educators, if you can recognise the following red flags early and seek appropriate medical help, it may just save a life.

Change in skin colour

A sick child will usually have a colour change to their skin. No matter what colour skin they have, they can become quite pale in comparison to their normal colour. Even more worrying is if their skin becomes grey, blue or mottled.


A very sick child may be floppy in your arms, almost like a rag doll. This is a very concerning sign.


A very sick child may be drowsy. They may be sleeping more than usual, or difficult to rouse from their sleep. They may have a weak cry, or not be crying at all. They may also be unsettled and unable to be consoled.

Reduced feeding

A baby may be refusing to feed, or they may be not waking for feeds. A toddler or older child may be too tired or refusing to drink.

Reduced wet nappies (urine)

If a baby or child in your care has less wet nappies than usual, or a toilet trained child is not passing urine as much as they normally would, this is concerning.

Breathing problems

A child with respiratory distress needs urgent medical help.

So what do you do?

You need to look at the child, not just the number on the thermometer, and trust your instinct. If a child is showing the above red flags, you need urgent medical help. If they are unresponsive, drowsy, floppy, blue, grey, mottled, or having difficulty breathing you need to call an ambulance 000 immediately.

TRUST YOUR INSTINCT! If you feel like there is something wrong, you are likely right. Seek medical help.


Sarah Hunstead RN, MN
Managing Director CPR Kids
Author: A life. A finger. A pea up a nose. A practical guide to baby and child first aid

About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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