Medicine for Your Baby: What You Need to Know

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on May 05, 2016
From the WebMD Archives

It’s 3 a.m. and your baby is wailing. They feel warm, but it’s not a raging fever. Their nose is running, but the mucus looks clear. Another parent at day care mentioned a virus that’s going around. Or maybe it’s just a cold and they're crying because they're tired and uncomfortable.

What can you give them to make them feel better?

With any child under the age of 4, your options for over-the-counter medicine are limited. That’s true for drugs to treat coughs and colds as well as nausea and vomiting.

Most cold medications, for example, are off-limits for infants and toddlers. The same is true for most nonprescription drugs that treat an upset stomach.

Fortunately, you can handle these situations with some basic understanding of medicines and what’s OK for your little one.

What’s Needed?

You need to know which drugs are right for certain conditions.

Antibiotics, for example, won’t help a cold or anything else caused by virus. They treat bacterial infections only. If your doctor says antibiotics won’t help, don’t demand the drugs.

The pain relievers acetaminophen and ibuprofen come in infant-strength doses and can help fevers. But they’re in many products, and if you accidentally give your child too much, it’s dangerous. So check with your pediatrician or pharmacist about the dose and limits, and always follow the directions on the label.

For a cold, the FDA strongly recommends against giving infants and toddlers younger than 4 cough and cold medications containing antihistamines and decongestants unless your doctor tells you to use one.

You can feel better knowing that time is the best healer for babies’ colds.

“Patients will get better on their own in a week or two without any need for medications,” says pediatrician Amy M. Taylor, MD, a medical officer in the FDA’s Division of Pediatric and Maternal Health.

Follow Instructions

Even when you’re in a hurry to help your child, carefully read the directions and warning labels on all drugs, including those that don’t need a prescription.

Follow the dosage and dosing information on medicine labels as written. Treat them as absolute rules, not suggestions. Don’t give a larger dose, and don’t give the medicine more often than the label advises.

Giving precisely the right dose can be trickier than you might think. If you’re a new parent, using a tiny dropper or dosing spoon to measure it out may feel unfamiliar. If your medicine doesn’t come with a dropper, measured cup, or dosing spoon, ask your pharmacist about it. They may give you one or sell you an inexpensive one.

Never use a regular teaspoon from your kitchen. It may be harder to get an exact dose with them.

“We found that parents often can make errors with liquid medications,” Taylor says. “It’s often difficult for them to correctly measure liquid medications because they don’t understand what a milliliter is or may be confused about the difference between a teaspoon and a tablespoon.” (Tsp stands for teaspoon and Tbsp is a tablespoon.)

When you use a dropper, place a couple of drops at a time inside the lower cheek of your baby. Don’t squeeze the medicine right into the back of the throat. Your baby may start to cough or choke. Let the medicine slide down the throat naturally when they swallow.

Also, don’t mix medicine with a bottle of formula, juice, or water. If your baby only has half of their bottle, you have no way of knowing how much medicine they actually got.

If your child spits out the medicine as soon as they've had it or they vomit right after taking the medicine, call your pediatrician’s office for advice. Some medications are OK to give again. With others, you may need to wait because of the risk of giving your baby too much medicine.

“If you have questions or need advice, do ask the pharmacist,” Taylor says. “She or he can tell you which dosing instrument to use, how much medication to give, and how often.”

Be Sure

If you’re ever in doubt about a particular medicine, symptom, or side effect, call your pediatrician’s office. A nurse may be available to answer your question or at least get back to you soon.

A pharmacist should also be able to tell you about any potential interactions between two or more medications.

As challenging as it can be a parent -- even when your baby is well -- you may know more than you think.

Trust your own instincts, especially if the symptoms are serious and your child is very young.

“You have to know your child,” Taylor says.  For instance, “with small infants, fever is a major concern, and you need medical advice.”

With advice from the pros, you’ll be ready to help your little one the next time they wake up at 3 a.m. in need of a little TLC and maybe some medicine, too.

Show Sources


Amy M. Taylor, MD, Division of Pediatric and Maternal Health, FDA.

CDC: “For Parents: Young Children and Adverse Drug Events,” “Have a Baby or Young Child with a Cold? Most Don’t Need Medicines.

FDA: “An Important FDA Reminder for Parents: Do Not Give Infants Cough and Cold Products Designed for Older Children.”

Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles: “Nine Stress-Free Tips for Giving Your Child Medicine.”

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