Sleep problems in children

Lots of young children find it difficult to settle down to sleep and will wake up during the night.

For some people, this might not be a problem. But if you or your child are suffering from lack of sleep, you may like to try some of these suggestions.

Every child is different, so only do what you feel comfortable with and what you think will suit your child.

If your child won't go to bed

  • Decide what time you want your child to go to bed.
  • Close to the time that your child normally falls asleep, start a 20-minute "winding down" bedtime routine. Bring this forward by 5-10 minutes a week – or 15 minutes if your child is in the habit of going to bed very late – until you get to the bedtime you want.
  • Set a limit on how much time you spend with your child when you put them to bed. For example, read only one story, then tuck your child in and say goodnight.
  • Give your child their favourite toy, dummy (if they use one) or comforter before settling into bed.
  • Leave a beaker of water within reach and a dim light on if necessary.
  • If your child gets up, keep taking them back to bed again with as little fuss as possible.
  • Try to be consistent.
  • You may have to repeat this routine for several nights.

If your child keeps waking during the night

Lots of under-fives go through periods of waking at night. Some will just go back to sleep on their own, while others will cry or want company.

If this happens, try to work out why your child is waking up:

  • Is it hunger? If your child is a year or older, a bowl of cereal and milk last thing at night might help them sleep through the night.
  • Are they afraid of the dark? You could use a nightlight or leave a landing light on.
  • Is your child waking up because they're scared or having nightmares? If so, try to find out if something is bothering them.
  • Is your child too hot or too cold? Adjust their bedclothes or the heating in the room and see if that helps.

If there's no obvious cause and your child continues to wake up, cry or demand company, you could try some of the following suggestions:

  • scheduled waking – if your child wakes up at the same time every night, try waking them 15-60 minutes before this time, then settle them back to sleep.
  • let your child sleep in the same room as a brother or sister – if you think your child may be lonely and their brother or sister doesn't object, put them in the same room. This can help them both sleep through the night.
  • tackle it together – if you have a partner, agree between you how to tackle your child's sleeping problems. You don't want to try to decide what to do in the middle of the night. If you've both agreed what's best for your child, it'll be easier to stick to your plan.

Children's nightmares

Nightmares are quite common in young children. They often begin between the ages of 18 months and three years.

Nightmares aren't usually a sign of emotional disturbance. They may happen if your child is anxious about something or has been frightened by a TV programme or story.

After a nightmare, your child will need comfort and reassurance. If your child has a lot of nightmares and you don't know why, talk to your GP or health visitor.

How to handle night terrors

Night terrors are most common in children aged between three and eight years old. Usually, a child will scream or start thrashing around while they're still asleep.

It usually happens after the child has been asleep for a couple of hours. They may sit up and talk or look terrified while they're still asleep.

Don't wake your child during a night terror. But if they're happening at the same time each night, try breaking the pattern by gently waking your child about 15 minutes beforehand. Keep them awake for a few minutes, then let them go back to sleep. They won't remember anything in the morning.

Seeing your child have a night terror can be very upsetting, but they're not dangerous and won't have any lasting effects. Night terrors aren't usually a sign of any serious problems and your child will eventually grow out of them.

Help with kids' sleeping problems

It can take patience, consistency and commitment, but most children's sleep problems can be solved. If you've tried the suggestions on these pages and your child's sleeping is still a problem, you could talk to your health visitor.

They may have other ideas or suggest you make an appointment at a sleep clinic, if there's one in your area. Sleep clinics are usually run by health visitors or clinical psychologists who are trained in managing sleep problems. They can give you the help and support you need.

In the meantime, if you're desperate, try to find someone else to take over for an occasional night, or someone who your child could stay with, such as their grandparents. You'll cope better if you can catch up on some sleep yourself.

Helping your disabled child to sleep

Sometimes children with long-term illnesses or disabilities find it more difficult to sleep through the night. This can be challenging both for them and for you.

Contact a Family has more information about helping your child sleep

The Scope website also has sleep advice for parents of disabled children

Treating a high temperature

In children under five, a fever is considered to be a temperature higher than 37.5C (99.5F).

Fever is very common in young children. More than 60% of parents with children aged between six months and five years say their child has had one.

It is usually caused by a minor viral infection, such as a cough or cold, and can normally be treated at home.

A high temperature can be quite worrying for parents and carers, but most children recover with no problems after a few days.

How to tell if your child has a fever

Your child may have a fever if they:

  • feel hotter than usual when you touch their forehead, back or stomach
  • feel sweaty or clammy
  • have flushed cheeks

If you suspect your child has a fever, you should check their temperature with a thermometer.

Safe, cheap digital thermometers are available from your local pharmacy, supermarket or online retailers.

Forehead thermometers should not be used as they can give inaccurate results.

Read more about how to take your child's temperature

How to care for your feverish child

To help keep your child comfortable, you should:

  • encourage them to drink plenty of fluids – offer regular breastfeeds if you're breastfeeding
  • only offer them food if they seem to want it
  • look out for signs of dehydration – these can include a dry mouth, no tears, sunken eyes and, in babies, fewer wet nappies and a sunken fontanelle (the soft spot on the head)
  • check on your child from time to time during the night
  • keep them away from childcare, nursery or school – let the carer, nursery or school know your child is unwell

If your child seems distressed, consider giving them children's paracetamol or ibuprofen. These shouldn't be given together.

However, if you give your child one medicine and it doesn't seem to be helping, it's OK to try the other one before the next dose is due.

Always check the instructions on the bottle or packet carefully, and never exceed the recommended dose. Never give aspirin to children under the age of 16.

If your child suffers from asthma, seek advice from your GP or pharmacist before giving them ibuprofen.

Learn more about medicines for babies and toddlers

There's no need to undress your child or sponge them down with tepid water. Research shows that neither actually help reduce fever. Avoid bundling them up in too many clothes or bedclothes.

Get more tips on looking after a sick child

What to do if you're worried

If you're worried about your baby or child, call your GP practice. If the practice is closed, call NHS 111 or contact your GP out-of-hours service – there will be a phone number on your GP's answerphone.

The doctor or nurse you speak to will ask you questions about your child's symptoms. Your answers will help them decide whether your child can be cared for at home or whether they should be seen at the GP practice, out-of-hours centre, or hospital.

Always get medical advice if:

  • your baby is under three months old and they have a temperature of 38C (101F) or higher
  • your baby is three to six months old and has a temperature of 39C (102F) or higher
  • you think your child may be dehydrated
  • your child develops a red rash that doesn't fade when a glass is rolled over it
  • your child has a fit (convulsion)
  • your child is inconsolable and doesn't stop crying, or has a high-pitched or unusual sound when crying
  • the fever lasts for more than five days
  • your child's health is getting worse
  • you have any concerns about looking after your child at home

Read more about spotting the signs of serious illness

Spotting signs of serious illness

It can be difficult to tell when a baby or toddler is seriously ill, but the main thing is to trust your instincts.

You know better than anyone else what your child is usually like, so you'll know when something is seriously wrong.

Signs of serious illness in a baby or toddler

Here's a checklist of warning signs that might be serious:

Temperature

  • a high temperature, but cold feet and hands
  • a high temperature that doesn't come down with paracetamol or ibuprofen
  • your child is quiet and listless, even when their temperature is down
  • a high temperature in a baby less than eight weeks old

Read more about how to take your child's temperature

Find out how to treat a high temperature at home

Breathing

  • rapid breathing or panting
  • a throaty noise while breathing
  • your child is finding it hard to get their breath and is sucking their stomach in under their ribs

Other signs

  • blue, pale, blotchy, or ashen (grey) skin
  • your child is hard to wake up, or appears disorientated or confused 
  • they are crying constantly and you can't console or distract them, or the cry doesn't sound like their normal cry
  • a spotty, purple-red rash anywhere on the body that doesn't fade when you press a glass against it – this could be a sign of meningitis
  • green vomit
  • your child has a fit (convulsion or seizure) for the first time
  • your child is under eight weeks old and doesn't want to feed 
  • nappies that aren't very wet – this is a sign of dehydration

If your child has any of these signs, get medical help as soon as possible:

  • during the day from Monday to Friday – it's best to call your GP practice
  • evenings and weekends – call NHS 24 111 service, or call the out-of-hours number for your GP practice
  • if your baby is under six months old it's hard for a doctor or nurse to assess them over the phone – you can go toan out of hours centre, if you are very worried, take them to accident and emergency (A&E)

Find your nearest A&E

When to call an ambulance

Call 999 for an ambulance if your child:

  • stops breathing
  • won't wake up
  • is under eight weeks old and you are very worried about them
  • has a fit for the first time, even if they seem to recover
  • has a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis)
  • if you think someone may have seriously injured your baby

Again, trust your instincts. You know what's different or worrying behaviour in your child.

Spot the signs of childhood diseases

Learn the signs of serious diseases that can affect children:

Coughs, colds and ear infections

Children's colds

It's normal for a child to have eight or more colds a year. This is because there are hundreds of different cold viruses and young children have no immunity to any of them as they've never had them before. Gradually they build up immunity and get fewer colds.

Most colds get better in five to seven days. Here are some suggestions on how to ease the symptoms in your child: 

  • Make sure your child drinks plenty of fluids.
  • Saline nose drops can help loosen dried snot and relieve a stuffy nose. Ask your pharmacist, GP or health visitor about them.
  • If your child has a fever, pain or discomfort, children's paracetamol or ibuprofen can help. Children with asthma may not be able to take ibuprofen, so check with your pharmacist, GP or health visitor first. Always follow the instructions on the packet.
  • Encourage the whole family to wash their hands regularly to stop the cold spreading.

Cough and cold remedies for children

Children under six shouldn't have over-the-counter cough and cold remedies, including decongestants (medicines to clear a blocked nose), unless advised by a GP or pharmacist.

Children's sore throats

Sore throats are often caused by viral illnesses such as colds or flu. Your child's throat may be dry and sore for a day or two before a cold starts. You can give them paracetamol or ibuprofen to reduce the pain.

Most sore throats clear up on their own after a few days. If your child has a sore throat for more than four days, has a high temperature and is generally unwell, or is unable to swallow fluids or saliva, see your GP.

Go to sore throat for more information

Children's coughs

Children often cough when they have a cold because of mucus trickling down the back of the throat. If your child is feeding, drinking, eating and breathing normally and there's no wheezing, a cough isn't usually anything to worry about.

If your child has a bad cough that won't go away, see your GP. If your child also has a high temperature and is breathless, they may have a chest infection. If this is caused by bacteria rather than a virus your GP will prescribe antibiotics to clear up the infection. Antibiotics won't soothe or stop the cough straight away.

If a cough continues for a long time, especially if it's worse at night or is brought on by your child running about, it could be a sign of asthma. Some children with asthma also have a wheeze or breathlessness. If your child has any of these symptoms take them to the GP. If your child seems to be having trouble breathing contact your GP, even if it's the middle of the night.

Although it’s upsetting to hear your child cough, coughing helps clear away phlegm from the chest or mucus from the back of the throat. If your child is over the age of one, try a warm drink of lemon and honey.

Find more information on coughs

Croup

A child with croup has a distinctive barking cough and will make a harsh sound, known as stridor, when they breathe in. They may also have a runny nose, sore throat and high temperature.

Croup can usually be diagnosed by a GP and treated at home. However, if your child's symptoms are severe and they are finding it difficult to breathe, take them to the nearest hospital's accident and emergency (A&E) department.

Children's ear infections

Ear infections are common in babies and small children. They often follow a cold and sometimes cause a high temperature. A baby or toddler may pull or rub at an ear. Other possible symptoms include fever, irritability, crying, difficulty feeding, restlessness at night and a cough.

If your child has earache, with or without fever, you can give them paracetamol or ibuprofen at the recommended dose. Try one first and, if it doesn't work, give the other one.

Don't put any oil, eardrops or cotton buds into your child's ear unless your GP advises you to do so.

Most ear infections are caused by viruses, which can't be treated with antibiotics. They will just get better by themselves, usually within about three days.

After an ear infection your child may have a problem hearing for two to six weeks. If the problem lasts for any longer than this, ask your GP for advice.

Find out more about ear infection (otitis media)

Glue ear in children

Repeated middle ear infections (otitis media) may lead to glue ear (otitis media with effusion), where sticky fluid builds up and can affect your child's hearing. This may lead to unclear speech or behavioural problems.

If you smoke, your child is more likely to develop glue ear and will get better more slowly. Your GP can give you advice on treating glue ear.

Diarrhoea and vomiting

Diarrhoea and vomiting is common in young children. Also known as a stomach or tummy bug, it's usually caused by an infection.

Most babies and toddlers who have diarrhoea and vomiting don't need treatment and you can safely look after them at home. However, it's important to look out for signs of dehydration.

Babies and toddlers can become dehydrated more quickly than older children when they have diarrhoea and vomiting. If dehydration becomes severe it can be dangerous, particularly in young babies.

It's also important to be careful with hygiene while your child is ill to stop diarrhoea and vomiting spreading.

Looking after a baby or toddler with diarrhoea and vomiting

  • Carry on offering babies their usual milk feeds. Bottle fed babies can also have drinks of water between feeds. Keep giving them formula at the usual strength – never water it down.
  • Toddlers over one can have other drinks, such as full-fat cows' milk, but avoid fruit juice and fizzy drinks as these can make diarrhoea worse.
  • If your child is having solid foods, offer them food as usual if they seem to want it.
  • If you wish, you can give your baby oral rehydration salt (ORS) solution to help prevent dehydration. This is available from your pharmacist.

If you are worried about your child, you can speak to your GP, health visitor or pharmacist, or call NHS 24 111 Service for advice.

When to get medical advice

Vomiting usually lasts for 1-2 days, while diarrhoea lasts for about 5-7 days. If your child's symptoms last longer than this, or if they are showing signs of dehydration, speak to your GP.

Signs of dehydration in a baby or toddler

Your child may be dehydrated if they have:

  • sunken eyes
  • in young babies, a sunken soft spot (fontanelle) on their head
  • few or no tears when they cry
  • a dry mouth
  • fewer wet nappies
  • dark yellow urine

See other signs of dehydration

When to get medical help urgently

Get medical advice urgently if your baby or toddler:

  • seems to be deteriorating rather than getting better
  • has a temperature of over 38C (100.4F) for a baby less than three months old, or over 39C (102.2F) for a baby aged three to six months old. (Over six months a child's temperature isn't the most useful indicator of how seriously ill they are.) Read more about how to take your baby's temperature
  • has blood or mucus in their poo
  • has bile-stained (green) vomit
  • has severe abdominal pain

See other signs of serious illness in young children

How to rehydrate your child with ORS solution

If your baby becomes dehydrated, they will need to be rehydrated with oral rehydration salt (ORS) solution, which is available from your pharmacist or GP. They will explain how to use it.

The ORS solution helps replace the water and salts lost from your child's body because of the diarrhoea and vomiting.

To rehydrate your baby or toddler, you need to offer them small amounts of ORS solution frequently over a period of about four hours.

If your child is breastfed, keep offering them breastfeeds as well. If your child isn't breastfed, don't offer them any other drinks apart from the ORS solution unless a health professional suggests it.

Don't offer your child any food while they are having the ORS solution.

If your baby or toddler keeps vomiting the solution back up or won't drink it, speak to your GP.

Don't give your child anti-diarrhoea drugs unless advised to by a health professional.

Caring for your child once they're rehydrated

Once your child is rehydrated, they can start to eat solid food again. Offer them plenty of their usual drinks, including milk feeds, but avoid fruit juice or fizzy drinks.

If your child has more episodes of diarrhoea you may be advised to give them some ORS solution after each bout.

How to stop diarrhoea and vomiting spreading

  • Make sure everyone in the family washes their hands frequently, preferably using liquid soap with warm running water. They also need to dry their hands properly.
  • It's particularly important for everyone to wash their hands after going to the toilet or changing a nappy and before eating.
  • Anyone who has diarrhoea and vomiting should have their own towel to use.
  • Babies or children who have diarrhoea and vomiting should be kept away from childcare or school for at least 48 hours after the last bout of diarrhoea or vomiting.
  • Babies or children shouldn't swim in public swimming pools for two weeks after diarrhoea and vomiting has stopped.

Infectious illnesses

Chickenpox

Incubation period: One to three weeks
Infectious period: The most infectious time is one to two days before the rash appears, but it continues to be infectious until all the blisters have crusted over.

Symptoms

Chickenpox is a mild infectious disease that most children catch at some time. It starts with feeling unwell, a rash and, usually, a fever.

Spots develop, which are red and become fluid-filled blisters within a day or two. They eventually dry into scabs, which drop off. The spots first appear on the chest, back, head or neck, then spread. They don't leave scars unless they're badly infected or picked.

What to do

You don't need to go to your GP or accident and emergency (A&E) department unless you're unsure whether it's chickenpox, or your child is very unwell or distressed.

  • Give your child plenty to drink.
  • Use the recommended dose of paracetamol to relieve any fever or discomfort. Ibuprofen isn't recommended for children who have chickenpox as, in rare cases, it can cause skin complications.
  • Taking baths, wearing loose, comfortable clothes and using calamine lotion can all ease the itchiness.
  • Try to discourage or distract your child from scratching, as this will increase the risk of scarring. Keeping their nails short will help.
  • Let your child's school or nursery know they are ill, in case other children are at risk.
  • Keep your child away from anyone who is pregnant or trying to get pregnant. If your child had contact with a pregnant woman just before they became unwell, let the woman know about the chickenpox and suggest that she sees her GP or midwife. For women who have never had chickenpox, catching the illness in pregnancy can cause miscarriage, or the baby may be born with chickenpox.

For more information, see our page on chickenpox

Measles

Incubation period: 7 to 12 days
Infectious period: From around 4 days before the rash appears until 4 days after it's gone.

Symptoms

  • Measles begins like a bad cold and cough with sore, watery eyes.
  • Your child will become gradually more unwell, with a fever.
  • A rash appears after the third or fourth day. The spots are red and slightly raised. They may be blotchy, but not itchy. The rash begins behind the ears and spreads to the face and neck, then the rest of the body.
  • The illness usually lasts about a week.

Measles is much more serious than chickenpox, german measles, or mumps. It's best prevented by the MMR vaccination. Serious complications include pneumonia and death.

What to do

  • Make sure your child gets plenty of rest and plenty to drink. Warm drinks will ease the cough.
  • Give them paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve the fever and discomfort.
  • Put Vaseline around their lips to protect their skin.
  • If their eyelids are crusty, gently wash them with warm water.
  • If your child is having trouble breathing, has a seizure, is coughing a lot or seems drowsy, seek urgent medical advice.

For more information, read see our page on measles

Mumps

Incubation period: 14 to 25 days
Infectious period: From a few days before starting to feel unwell until a few days afterwards.

Symptoms

  • A general feeling of being unwell.
  • A high temperature.
  • Pain and swelling on the side of the face (in front of the ear) and under the chin. Swelling usually begins on one side, followed by the other side, though not always. 
  • Discomfort when chewing.

Your child's face will be back to normal size in about a week. It's rare for mumps to affect boys' testes (balls) – this happens more often in adult men with mumps. If you think your child's testes are swollen or painful, see your GP.

What to do

  • Give your child paracetamol or ibuprofen to ease pain in the swollen glands. Check the pack for the correct dosage.
  • Give your child plenty to drink, but not fruit juices, as they make the saliva flow, which can worsen your child's pain.
  • There's no need to see your GP, unless your child has other symptoms, such as a severe headache, vomiting, rash or, in boys, swollen testes.
  • Mumps can be prevented by the MMR vaccine.

See our page on mumps for more information.

Slapped cheek disease (also known as fifth disease or parvovirus B19)

Incubation period: 1 to 20 days
Infectious period: A few days before the rash appears. Children are no longer contagious when the rash appears.

Symptoms

  • It begins with a fever and nasal discharge.
  • A bright red rash, like the mark left by a slap, appears on the cheeks.
  • Over the next two to four days, a lacy rash spreads to the trunk and limbs.
  • Children with blood disorders such as spherocytosis or sickle cell disease may become more anaemic. They should seek medical care.

What to do

  • Make sure your child rests and drinks plenty of fluids. 
  • Give them paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve any discomfort and fever.
  • Pregnant women or women planning to become pregnant should see their GP or midwife as soon as possible if they come into contact with the infection or develop a rash.

Go to our page on slapped cheek syndrome for more information.

German measles (rubella)

Incubation period: 15 to 20 days
Infectious period: From one week before symptoms develop until up to four days after the rash appeared.

Symptoms

  • It starts like a mild cold.
  • A rash appears in a day or two, first on the face, then on the body. The spots are flat and are pale pink on light skin.
  • Glands in the back of the neck may be swollen.
  • Your child won't usually feel unwell.

It can be difficult to diagnose rubella with certainty.

What to do

  • Give your child plenty to drink.
  • Give them paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve any discomfort or fever.
  • Keep them away from anybody who's in the early stages of pregnancy (up to four months) or trying to get pregnant. If your child has had contact with any pregnant women before you knew about the illness, you must let the women know, as they'll need to see their GP.
  • Rubella can be prevented by the MMR vaccine.

Whooping cough

Incubation period: 6 to 21 days
Infectious period: From the first signs of the illness until about three weeks after coughing starts. If an antibiotic is given, the infectious period will continue for up to five days after starting treatment. 

Antibiotics need to be given early in the course of the illness to improve symptoms.

Symptoms

  • The symptoms are similar to a cold and cough, with the cough gradually getting worse.
  • After about two weeks, coughing fits start. These are exhausting and make it difficult to breathe.
  • Younger children (babies under six months) are much more seriously affected and can have breath-holding or blue attacks, even before they develop a cough.
  • Your child may choke and vomit.
  • Sometimes, but not always, there will be a whooping noise as the child draws in breath after coughing.
  • The coughing fits may continue for several weeks, and can go on for up to three months.

What to do

  • Whooping cough is best prevented through immunisation.
  • If your child has a cough that gets worse rather than better, and starts to have longer fits of coughing more often, see your GP.
  • It's important for the sake of other children to know whether or not your child has whooping cough. Talk to your GP about how to look after your child. Avoid contact with babies, who are most at risk from serious complications.
  • Whooping cough can be prevented by childhood vaccinations.

For more information, go to our page on whooping cough

Children's medicines

Medicines aren't always needed for childhood illnesses. Most illnesses get better by themselves, and make your child stronger and able to resist similar illnesses in the future.

Painkillers for children

Paracetamol and ibuprofen are often used to relieve the discomfort caused by a high temperature.

Some children, such as those with asthma, may not be able to take ibuprofen, so check with your pharmacist, GP or health visitor.

Both paracetamol and ibuprofen are safe and effective. Always have one or both stored in a safe place at home.

Don't give aspirin to children under 16 unless it's specifically prescribed by a doctor.

It has been linked with a rare but dangerous illness called Reye's syndrome.

If you're breastfeeding, ask your health visitor, midwife or GP for advice before taking aspirin.

Paracetamol for children

Paracetamol can be given to children over two months old for pain and fever. Make sure you've got the right strength for your child. Overdosing is dangerous. Check with your pharmacist when you buy it, and read the label carefully.

Ibuprofen for children

Ibuprofen can be given for pain and fever in children of three months and over who weigh more than 5kg (11lbs). Check the correct dose for your child's age. Avoid ibuprofen if your child has asthma, unless advised by your GP.

Antibiotics for children

Children don't often need antibiotics. Most childhood infections are caused by viruses, and antibiotics only treat illnesses caused by bacteria, not viruses.

If you're offered a prescription, especially an antibiotic, talk to your GP about why it's needed, how it will help, and whether there are any alternatives. Ask about any possible side effects – for example, whether it will make your child sleepy or irritable.

If your child is prescribed antibiotics, always finish the whole course to make sure all the bacteria are killed off.

Your child may seem better after two or three days, but if the course is five days, they must carry on taking the medicine. The illness is more likely to return if you don't finish all the antibiotics.

Child medicine dosages

Make sure you know how much and how often to give a medicine. Writing it in your child's Personal Child Health Record (PCHR, or red book) may help you remember.

See Your baby's health and development reviews for more information on the red book.

If in doubt, check with your pharmacist or GP. Never give the medicine more frequently than recommended by your GP or pharmacist.

With liquids, always measure out the right dose for your child's age. The instructions will be on the bottle.

Sometimes liquid medicine may have to be given using a special spoon or liquid medicine measure. This allows you to give small doses of medicine more accurately.

Never use a kitchen teaspoon, as they vary in size. Ask your pharmacist or health visitor to explain how a measure should be used.

Always read the manufacturer's instructions supplied with the measure, and always give the exact dose stated on the medicine bottle. If in doubt, ask the pharmacist for help.

If you buy medicines at the pharmacy:

  • Always tell the pharmacist how old your child is. Some medicines are for adult use only.
  • Always follow the instructions on the label or ask the pharmacist if you're unsure.
  • Ask for sugar-free medicines if they're available.
  • Look for the date stamp. Don't use out-of-date medicines. If you have any out-of-date medicines at home, take them back to the pharmacy for safe disposal.

Only give your child medicine given to you by your GP, pharmacist or usual healthcare professional. Never use medicines prescribed for anyone else.

Keep all medicines out of your child's reach and out of sight, if possible. The kitchen is a good place to keep medicines as it's easy for you to keep an eye on them there. Put them in a place where they won't get warm.

Children and side effects from medicine

If you think your child is reacting badly to a medicine – for example, with a rash or diarrhoea – stop giving it to them and speak to a health professional.

If you're worried that a symptom may be a side effect of a medicine:

  • read the patient information leaflet supplied with the medicine – this lists the known side effects and advises you what to do
  • call NHS 24 111 service, or speak to a pharmacist or your GP or practice nurse
  • report the side effect through the Yellow Card Scheme – the scheme is run by the UK medicines watchdog, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA); Yellow Card reports are used as an early warning system to collect information on side effects and take necessary action to protect the public if there is a problem

Keep a note of the medicine's name in your child's red book for future reference.

Can you get over-the-counter children's medicines for free?

Some pharmacies run what's known as a minor ailment scheme for specific ailments, such as coughs and colds and diarrhoea and vomiting.

When pharmacies provide medicines as part of a minor ailment scheme, you get the medicines on the NHS. You won't pay a prescription charge for children under 16.

Not all pharmacies offer a minor ailment scheme and the ailments covered by the scheme vary from area to area.

Read more about the minor ailments scheme

Looking after a sick child

If your child is ill the most important thing to do is to listen to them. If they say they don't need to be in bed, they probably don't. They might feel better on the sofa with a blanket or duvet.

Whether they're in bed or on the sofa, the following will help them feel more comfortable. 

  • Keep the room airy without being draughty. If the room is too warm they'll probably feel worse.
  • Give your child plenty to drink. For the first day or so don't bother about food unless they want it. After that start trying to tempt them with bits of food and encouraging them to have nutritious drinks like milk.
  • Try to give your child time for quiet games, stories, company and comfort.
  • Sick children get very tired and need plenty of rest. Encourage your child to doze off when he or she needs to, perhaps with a story read by you or on tape or CD.
  • Never fall asleep with a sick baby on the sofa with you, even if you're both exhausted. This increases the chances of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). 

See more about reducing the risk of SIDS

Looking after a sick child, even for a couple of days, is exhausting. Make things as easy for yourself as you can. Get rest and sleep when you can, and try to get somebody else to take over every now and then to give you a break.

Medical help for child illness

Your health visitor, practice nurse, nurse practitioner, GP and pharmacist can all give you advice on how to treat your child's illness. Your GP can treat your child and prescribe medicines. Some health visitors, nurses and pharmacists can also diagnose illness and prescribe medicines for your child.

If your child is ill you can try your local pharmacy first. They will tell you if your child needs to see a GP. If your child has signs of serious illness contact your GP directly or take them straight to the A&E department of your local hospital.

Most GP surgeries are very supportive towards parents of small children. Some will fit babies into surgeries without an appointment or see them at the beginning of surgery hours. Many GPs will also give advice over the phone.

If you find it difficult to contact your doctor or get to the surgery you can call NHS 24 111 service for medical advice, 24 hours a day.

Dealing with children's minor accidents

Many GP surgeries, minor injury units, walk-in centres and pharmacies are equipped to deal with minor casualties, such as cuts or items trapped in the nose or ear. In this situation, ask your GP or NHS 24 111 service for advice on where to go before you go to A&E.

Serious conditions and special needs

Find out what support is available, and how to get it, if your child has a serious condition or special needs.

Learning that your child has a disability or illness is bound to be stressful and upsetting. It's a good idea to get as much information as possible, so you're well informed.

Ask your GP or specialist about any concerns you have. For example, you could ask the following:

  • Is there a name for my child's problem? 
  • Does my child need more tests to get a clear diagnosis?
  • Is the condition likely to get better or worse?
  • Where is the best place to go for medical help?
  • What help is available for my child?
  • What help is available for me?
  • How can I get in touch with other parents who have children with a similar problem?
  • What can I do to help my child?

You may find it difficult to understand and absorb everything that's said to you at first. Ask for the information again if you feel you need to.

If you can, get a friend or relative to come with you, or take a pen and paper so that you can make some notes.

Child development centres

In most areas, teams made up of health and care professionals will help children with special needs and their families. These teams include:

  • children's doctors (paediatricians)
  • therapists
  • health visitors
  • social workers

The teams are usually based in child development centres. You can ask your GP, health visitor or hospital paediatrician to refer your child to one of these teams.

Further information and support

Ask your GP, health visitor or specialist about other sources of support in your area.

You can also contact these organisations and services directly:

  • Contact a Family is a charity that provides information, advice and support to families with a disabled child. You can phone the free helpline on 0800 808 3555. They also have extensive information on their website about different medical conditions, knowing your rights and the benefits you may be entitled to.
  • Other parents who have been through similar experiences can be a valuable source of support. Contact a Family can put you in touch with other families.
  • There are many specialist charities for specific conditions – ask your health team or search online for your child's condition. 
  • Sure Start Children's Centres provide a range of early childhood services. Find your nearest Sure Start Children's Centre and check what they offer.
  • The charity Family Fund provides grants for families raising disabled or seriously ill children and young people. Find out more on the Family Fund website.

Children with special educational needs

If you're concerned that your child has special educational needs (that is, you think they might need extra help at nursery or school), talk to your child's nursery or school in the first instance.

If you child isn't at nursery or school, you can discuss your concerns with a health professional who already knows you and your child, such as your health visitor or GP.

Your child will be able to access different types of extra help, although what this is depends on their specific educational needs. Children with complex needs may need an education, health and care (EHC) plan.

Find out more here:

Benefits for children with disabilities

If your child has a disability, you may be able to claim benefits such as Disability Living Allowance (DLA) or Carers Allowance.

The Money Advice Service has more information on the financial support available for parents or carers of a disabled child

Your baby's weight and height

Steady weight gain is one of the signs that your baby is healthy and feeding well.

In the early days after birth, it's normal for babies to lose some weight. Your baby will be weighed to make sure they regain their birth weight, and you'll be offered support if this doesn't happen.

Four out of five healthy babies are at or above their birth weight by 14 days.

Your health visitor will talk to you about how feeding is going and look at your baby's health in general. This is particularly important if your baby loses a large amount of weight or doesn't regain their birth weight. 

How often will my baby be weighed?

After the first two weeks, your baby will be weighed:

  • no more than once a month up to six months of age
  • no more than once every two months from 6 to 12 months of age
  • no more than once every three months over the age of one

Your baby will usually only be weighed more often than this if you request it, or if there are concerns about their health or growth.

Your baby's length may also be measured at some of their reviews. Before the age of two, your child will be laid flat on a measuring mat so their length can be taken. From age two, your child's height will be measured when they're standing up.

Understanding your baby's centile chart

Your child's growth will be recorded on centile charts in their personal child health record (PCHR), or red book. These charts show the pattern of growth that healthy children usually follow, whether they're breastfed or formula fed. They allow you to see how your baby is growing.

Boys and girls have different charts because boys tend to be heavier and taller, and their growth pattern is slightly different.

What the centile lines mean

The curved lines on the charts are called centile lines. These show the average weight and height gain for babies at different ages. If your child's weight is on the 25th centile, this means that if you lined up 100 children of the same age in order from the lightest to the heaviest, your child would be number 25 and 75 children would be taller.

It's normal for a child's weight or height to be anywhere within the top and bottom centile lines on the charts. The centile lines show roughly how healthy babies are expected to grow.

Your baby's weight and height may not follow a centile line exactly. Their measurements may go up or down by one centile line, but it's less common for them to cross two centile lines. If this happens, your health visitor can discuss this further with you.

All babies are different, and your baby's growth chart won't look exactly like another baby's (even their brother's or sister's).

Your baby's weight gain

Usually, weight gain is quickest in the first six to nine months. It gradually slows down as children move into the toddler years and become more active.

If your baby or toddler is ill, their weight gain may slow down for a while. Their weight will usually return to normal within two to three weeks.

Your toddler's weight and height

Your child's height after the age of two can give some indication of how tall they will be when they grow up. If you like, you can use the adult height predictor on the height page of your baby's red book.

It's normal for your child to be on different centiles for weight and length or height, but the two are usually similar.

Once your child gets to the age of two, your health visitor may use their weight and height to calculate their body mass index (BMI) and plot it on a centile chart. This may indicate whether your child's weight is in the healthy range or not.

If they are overweight or underweight, your health visitor can give you advice about your child's diet and physical activity levels. They can help you plan any changes needed.

For more information about your baby or toddler's weight or height, talk to your health visitor or GP.

Baby health and development reviews

Your baby will have regular health and development reviews during their early years. These are to make sure they stay healthy and are developing normally.

The reviews will usually be done by your health visitor or a member of the health visiting team.

The team works closely with your GP and the staff at your local children's centre. Reviews may be done in your home or at the GP surgery, well baby clinic, or children's centre.

Appointments can be arranged so both you and your partner are there. The reviews are an opportunity for you both to ask questions and discuss any concerns you may have.

The personal child health record (red book)

Shortly before or after your baby is born, you'll be given a personal child health record (PCHR). This usually has a red cover and is often called the "red book". It's a handy way for you to keep track of your child's health and progress, and can be shared with their health professionals.

It's a good idea to take your baby's red book with you every time you visit the baby clinic, GP, or hospital. Your baby's health professionals will use it to record your child's weight and height, vaccinations, and other important health information.

Find out more about your baby's vaccinations

You can also add information to the red book yourself. You may want to record any illnesses or accidents your baby has, and details of any medicines they take.

You'll find it helpful to keep the developmental milestones section of the red book up-to-date and fill in the relevant questionnaires before each routine review.

What happens at your baby's reviews

During your baby's reviews, your health visitor will discuss your baby's progress and ask if you have any concerns.

If your baby was born prematurely, their developmental age will be calculated from your original due date, not from the actual date they were born, until they are two years old.

Your baby will be weighed regularly, but health professionals will want to avoid weighing them too often. This is because babies' weight gain can vary from week to week. Leaving a few weeks between weigh-ins gives a clearer idea of their progress.

See how often your baby will be weighed

When your baby will have their reviews

Your baby will usually have reviews at the ages outlined below. If you have any concerns at other times, contact your health visitor or GP, or go to your local baby clinic.

Shortly after birth

Your baby will be weighed at birth and again during their first week. They will also have a thorough physical examination within 72 hours of being born. A medical professional will usually check your baby's eyes, heart, hips, and – for baby boys – testes.

Read more about the newborn screening

At five to eight days, but ideally at five days, your baby will have a blood spot (heel prick) test, which screens for a number of rare diseases, including cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease. This is usually done by the midwife.

See more about the blood spot (heel prick) test

Your baby will have a hearing test soon after birth. If you have your baby in hospital, this may be done before you leave. Otherwise, it will be done some time in the first few weeks at the hearing centre in your local hospital.

See what the newborn hearing test involves

Your midwife and health visitor will also support you with breastfeeding, caring for your new baby, and adjusting to life as new parents.

One to two weeks

Your health visitor will carry out a new baby review with you and your partner within 10 to 14 days of the birth. They'll work with you on becoming parents and how to keep your baby safe and healthy. You and your partner will also be offered support with breastfeeding if you need it.

Six to eight weeks

Your baby will be invited for a thorough physical examination. This is usually done by your GP. Your baby's eyes, heart, hips, and – for boys – testicles will be checked. They will also have their weight, length, and head circumference measured.

Your GP or health visitor will also discuss your baby's vaccinations with you. In the first year these are offered from 8, 12, and 16 weeks.

The health visitor will also talk to you about your emotional wellbeing since the birth of your baby.

See more about the NHS vaccinations

Nine months to one year

During this time, your baby should be offered another review looking at several areas, including language and learning, safety, diet, and behaviour.

This is usually done by the health visitor or a member of the health visiting team, and is an opportunity for you and your partner to discuss any concerns you may have.

You may be asked to fill in a short questionnaire to help your health visitor understand how your baby is developing.

One to three years

At one year of age your baby will have their next set of routine vaccinations.

Between the ages of two and six, including school years 1 and 2, they will also be offered annual flu vaccinations, which are given as a nasal spray.

At two to two-and-a-half years they will have another health and development review. This is usually done by a nursery nurse or the health visitor, and may happen at your home, baby clinic, the children's centre, or your child's nursery if they're attending one.

They'll encourage you to talk about your child's progress and will help you with any concerns. You may be asked to fill in a short questionnaire about your baby's development.

It's best if both you and your partner are there. If your child attends an early years setting, such as a nursery or childminder, the review may be linked to your child's early years progress check at age two.

The review will cover:

  • general development, including movement, speech, social skills and behaviour, and hearing and vision
  • growth, healthy eating, and keeping active
  • managing behaviour and encouraging good sleeping habits
  • tooth brushing and going to the dentist 
  • keeping your child safe
  • vaccinations

Three years onwards

Your child will have another vaccination – sometimes called the preschool booster – at the age of three years, four months. They will also have annual flu vaccinations up to the age of six.

Once your child reaches school age, the school nursing team and school staff will help support their health and development. They will work with you to make sure your child is offered the right vaccinations and health reviews.

The school nursing team can also give you advice and support on all aspects of your child's health and wellbeing, including emotional and social issues.

How to take a baby's temperature

A normal temperature in children is about 36.4C (97.5F) but this does differ slightly from child to child. A fever is usually considered to be a temperature of over 37.5C (99.5F).

You may be concerned that your baby has a fever if they:

  • feel hotter than usual to the touch – on their forehead, back or stomach
  • feel sweaty or clammy
  • have flushed cheeks

What causes a fever in children?

A fever is relatively common in babies and small children. It can be a sign that the body is trying to fight an infection. When the body’s temperature increases, it’s harder for bacteria and viruses that cause infection to survive.

Fever in children has more information about the illnesses caused by infections, both common and serious, that can cause a fever in children.

Some babies and young children also get a fever shortly after having their routine vaccinations. This should clear up quite quickly by itself. If you’re concerned, speak to your health visitor or GP.

How do I take my child’s temperature?

If you’re concerned that your baby has a raised temperature, the best first step is to check their temperature with a thermometer. This will help you work out whether you need to call a doctor. If you speak to a doctor or nurse on the phone, it will help them make a decision about the type of medical attention your child needs.

Ideally, to get a fast and accurate reading of your child’s temperature, you need a digital thermometer. These are available from pharmacies and most large supermarkets.

Digital thermometers

To find out your child’s temperature, hold them comfortably on your knee and place the thermometer under their armpit (always use the thermometer under the armpit with children under five). Gently but firmly hold their arm against their body to keep the thermometer in place for the time stated in the manufacturer’s instructions (usually about 15 seconds). Some digital thermometers beep when they are ready. The display on the thermometer will then show you your child’s temperature.

Other types of thermometer

Other types of thermometer are available, but may not be as effective as a digital thermometer for taking a baby or small child’s temperature.

Ear (or tympanic) thermometers allow you to take a temperature reading from the ear. These thermometers are quick but expensive, and can give misleading readings, especially in babies, if they’re not correctly placed in the ear.

Strip-type thermometers are held on to the child’s forehead, and are not an accurate way of taking a temperature. They show the temperature of the skin, rather than the body.

Mercury-in-glass thermometers should not be used. They are no longer used in hospitals and not available to buy. They can break, releasing small shards of glass and highly poisonous mercury. If your child is exposed to mercury, get medical advice immediately.

How can I make sure the reading is accurate?

If you use a digital thermometer under your child’s armpit, and follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully, you should get an accurate reading.

However, there are a few circumstances that could slightly alter the reading, for example if your child has been:

  • wrapped up tightly in a blanket
  • in a very warm room
  • very active
  • cuddling a hot water bottle
  • wearing a lot of clothes
  • having a bath 

If this is the case, allow them to cool down for a few minutes (without allowing them to become cold or shivery), and take their temperature again to see if there has been any change.

What should I do now?

Always contact your GP, health visitor, practice nurse or nurse practitioner if:

  • your child has other signs of illness as well as a raised temperature
  • your baby’s temperature is 38C (101F) or higher (if they’re under three months), or
  • your baby’s temperature is 39C (102F) or higher (if they’re three to six months)

If you need to speak to someone outside normal surgery hours, you can call your GP surgery’s out-of-hours service (if they have one) or NHS 24 111 service.

If your child’s temperature is only slightly above normal, and they don’t have any other symptoms, you can help to make them more comfortable. Make sure they get plenty of drinks to avoid dehydration. If you're breastfeeding, then breast milk is best.

Find out more in treating a high temperature in children

Leg and foot problems in children

When children first start walking it's normal for them to walk with their feet apart and waddle. It's also common for young children to appear bow-legged or knock-kneed, or walk with their toes turned in or out. 

Most minor foot problems in children correct themselves, but talk to your GP or health visitor if you're concerned about any of the following conditions.

  • bow legs – before the age of two most children have a small gap between their knees and ankles when they stand. If the gap is pronounced or doesn't correct itself, check with your GP or health visitor. This could be a sign of rickets (a bone deformity), although this is very rare.
  • knock knees – this is when a child stands with their knees together and there's a gap between their ankles. Between the ages of two and four a gap of up to 6cm (around 2.5 inches) is considered normal. Knock knees usually correct themselves by the age of six.
  • in-toeing – also known as pigeon toes. This is where a child's feet turn in. The condition usually corrects itself by the age of eight or nine and treatment is not usually needed.
  • out-toeing – this is where the feet point outwards. Again, this usually corrects itself and treatment isn't needed in most cases.
  • flat feet – if your child appears to have flat feet, don't worry. If an arch forms when your child stands on tiptoe, no treatment will normally be needed.
  • tiptoe walking – it's common for children aged three or under to walk on their toes. If you have any concerns, talk to your GP or health visitor.

Choosing first shoes

Under the age of five, children's feet grow very fast, and it's important that the bones grow straight.

The bones in a baby's toes are soft at birth. If they're cramped by tight shoes or socks, they can't straighten out and grow properly.

Your child won't need proper shoes until they're walking on their own. Even then, shoes can be kept for outside walking only, at least at first. It's important that shoes and socks are the right size.

Shoes with laces, a buckle or a velcro fastening are good because they hold the heel in place and stop the foot slipping forward and damaging the toes. If the heel of a shoe slips off when your child stands on tiptoe, it's too big.

If possible, buy shoes made from natural materials such as leather, cotton or canvas, as these materials allow air to circulate. Plastic shoes make feet sweaty and can rub and cause fungal infections. Cotton socks are best.

Foot and nail care

After washing your child's feet, dry them well between the toes. When cutting their toenails, cut straight across, otherwise they may get an ingrowing toenail.

Reducing the risk of SIDS

It's not known why some babies die suddenly and for no apparent reason from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) or cot death.

Experts do know placing a baby to sleep on their back reduces the risk, and exposing a baby to cigarette smoke or allowing them to overheat increases the risk. It's also known there is an association between co-sleeping (sleeping with your baby on a bed, sofa or chair) and SIDS.

SIDS is rare, so don't let worrying about it stop you enjoying your baby's first few months. Follow the advice below to reduce the risks as much as possible.

How to reduce the risk of SIDS

  • Place your baby on their back to sleep, in a cot in the same room as you for the first six months.
  • Don't smoke during pregnancy or breastfeeding and don't let anyone smoke in the same room as your baby.
  • Don't share a bed with your baby if you've been drinking alcohol, if you take drugs or you're a smoker.
  • Never sleep with your baby on a sofa or armchair.
  • Don't let your baby get too hot or cold.
  • Keep your baby's head uncovered. Their blanket should be tucked in no higher than their shoulders.
  • Place your baby in the "feet to foot" position (with their feet at the end of the cot or Moses basket).

Place your baby on their back to sleep

Place your baby on their back to sleep from the very beginning, for both day and night sleeps. This will reduce the risk of cot death.

It's not as safe for babies to sleep on their side or tummy as on their back. Healthy babies placed on their backs are not more likely to choke.

Once your baby is old enough to roll over, there's no need to worry if they turn on to their tummy or side while sleeping.

The risks of co-sleeping

The safest place for your baby to sleep for the first six months is in a cot in the same room as you. It's especially important not to share a bed with your baby if you or your partner:

  • are smokers (no matter where or when you smoke and even if you never smoke in bed)
  • have recently drunk alcohol
  • have taken medication or drugs that make you sleep more heavily

The risks of co-sleeping are also increased if your baby:

  • was premature (born before 37 weeks), or
  • had a low birth weight (less than 2.5kg or 5.5lb)

As well as a higher risk of SIDS, there's also a risk you might roll over in your sleep and suffocate your baby. Or your baby could get caught between the wall and the bed, or roll out of an adult bed and be injured.

Never sleep with a baby on a sofa or armchair

It's lovely to have your baby with you for a cuddle or a feed, but sleeping with your baby on a sofa or armchair is linked to a higher risk of SIDS. It's safest to put your baby back in their cot before you go to sleep.

Don't let anyone smoke in the same room as your baby

Babies exposed to cigarette smoke before and after birth are at an increased risk of SIDS. Don't let anyone smoke in the house, including visitors.

Ask anyone who needs to smoke to go outside. Don't take your baby into smoky places. If you're a smoker, sharing a bed with your baby increases the risk of cot death.

Find help and support if you'd like to quit smoking

Don't let your baby get too hot or too cold

Overheating can increase the risk of SIDS. Babies can overheat because of too much bedding or clothing, or because the room is too hot.

  • When you check your baby, make sure they're not too hot. If your baby is sweating or their tummy feels hot to the touch, take off some of the bedding. Don't worry if their hands or feet feel cool – this is normal.
  • It's easier to adjust for the temperature by using layers of lightweight blankets. Remember, a folded blanket counts as two blankets. Lightweight, well-fitting baby sleeping bags are a good choice, too.  
  • Babies don't need hot rooms. All-night heating is rarely necessary. Keep the room at a temperature that's comfortable for you at night – about 18C (65F) is ideal.
  • If it's very warm, your baby may not need any bedclothes other than a sheet.
  • Even in winter, most babies who are unwell or feverish don't need extra clothes.
  • Babies should never sleep with a hot water bottle or electric blanket, next to a radiator, heater or fire, or in direct sunshine.
  • Babies lose excess heat through their heads, so make sure their heads can't be covered by bedclothes while they're asleep.
  • Remove hats and extra clothing as soon as you come indoors or enter a warm car, bus or train, even if it means waking your baby.

Don't let your baby's head become covered

Babies whose heads are covered with bedding are at an increased risk of SIDS. To prevent your baby wriggling down under the covers, place them in the "feet to foot" position. This means their feet are at the end of the crib, cot or Moses basket.

How to put your baby in the 'feet to foot' position

  • Tuck the covers in securely under your baby's arms so they can't slip over their head. Use one or more layers of lightweight blankets.
  • Use a baby mattress that's firm, flat, well-fitting and clean, and waterproof on the outside. Cover the mattress with a single sheet.
  • Don't use duvets, quilts, baby nests, wedges, bedding rolls or pillows.

Feeding, dummies and SIDS

Breastfeeding your baby reduces the risk of SIDS.

It's possible using a dummy at the start of a sleep also reduces the risk of SIDS. However, the evidence is not strong and not all experts agree that dummies should be promoted.

If you do use a dummy, don't start until breastfeeding is well established. This is usually when they're around one month old. Stop giving them the dummy when they're between 6 and 12 months old.

If your baby is unwell, seek medical help promptly

Babies often have minor illnesses, which you don't need to worry about. Give your baby plenty of fluids to drink and don't let them get too hot. If your baby sleeps a lot, wake them up regularly for a drink.

It can be difficult to judge whether an illness is more serious and needs urgent medical attention. See spotting the signs of serious illness for guidance on when to get help.

Constipation in young children

Constipation is common in childhood, particularly when children are being potty trained at around two to three years old.

If your child doesn't poo at least three times a week, and their poo is often hard and difficult to push out, they may be constipated.

Their poo may be large, or it may look like "rabbit droppings" or little pellets.

If your child is already potty trained, soiled pants can be another sign of constipation, as runny poo (diarrhoea) may leak out around the hard, constipated poo. This is called overflow soiling.

If your child is constipated, they may find it painful to poo. This creates a vicious circle: the more it hurts, the more they hold back. The more constipated they get, the more it hurts. Even if pooing isn’t painful, once your child is really constipated, they will stop wanting to go to the toilet altogether.

Why children get constipated

Your child may be constipated because they are not eating enough high-fibre foods like fruit and veg, not drinking enough or have problems potty (or toilet) training. Constipation can also suggest that your child is worried or anxious about something. Their worry may be about a big change such as moving house, starting nursery or the arrival of a new baby.

Find out about other causes of constipation in children

How to treat your child’s constipation

Take your child to the GP if you think they may be constipated. The treatment that may be recommended for constipation will depend on your child’s age. Laxatives are often recommended for children who have been weaned, alongside diet and lifestyle changes.

The longer your child is constipated, the more difficult it can be for them to get back to normal, so make sure you get help early.

It may take several months for the treatments to work, but keep trying until they do. Remember that laxative treatment may make your child's overflow soiling worse before it gets better.

Getting constipated and soiling their clothes isn’t something your child is doing on purpose, so there’s no reason to get cross with them. You may both find the situation stressful, but staying calm and relaxed is the best attitude to help your child deal with the problem. Your health visitor can offer helpful tips.

Preventing constipation

Once your child’s constipation has been dealt with, it’s important to do everything you can to stop it coming back. Your GP may advise that your child keeps taking laxatives for a while to make sure their poo stays soft enough to push out regularly. Here are some more tips:

  • Make sure your child has six to eight drinks a day – this includes breastfeeding and formula milk feeds.
  • Give your child a variety of foods, including plenty of fruit and vegetables, which are a good source of fibre. Read about what to feed young children.
  • Encourage your child to be physically active. For more information, read the physical activity guidelines for children aged under five years.
  • Get your child into a routine of regularly sitting on the potty or toilet, after meals or before bed, and praise them whether or not they poo each time. This is particularly important for boys, who may forget about pooing once they are weeing standing up.
  • Make sure your child can rest their feet flat on the floor or a step when they’re using the potty or toilet, to get them in a good position for pooing. The Education and Resources for Improving Childhood Continence (ERIC) guide to children’s bowel problems has a picture of this position.
  • Ask them to tell you if they feel worried about using the potty or toilet – some children don’t want to poo in certain situations, such as at nursery.
  • Stay calm and reassuring, so that your child doesn’t see going to the toilet as a stressful situation – you want your child to see pooing as a normal part of life, not something to be ashamed of.

If you'd like advice on taking the stress out of going to the toilet, speak to your health visitor.

More information and support

You can contact ERIC for support. You can also call the helpline on 0845 370 8008 from Monday to Thursday 10am to 2pm, or email a question to helpline@eric.org.uk.

ERIC runs a Let’s talk about poo campaign to raise awareness of constipation in young children, and suggests ways to help your child. Here are a few more sites that offer useful tips: