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Poorly toddler in bed

If it feels like your toddler is constantly coming down with something – from the common cold to a tummy bug – they probably are! According to statistics, little ones can catch up to 12 colds per year, and they’re likely to pick up more than their fair share if they go to nursery or have older siblings. And although looking after a poorly little one can be stressful, knowing what to do makes all the difference to your child’s comfort and to their speedy recovery. Read on for Dr Carol Cooper’s top tips to help you nurse your poorly child.

General care

A sick child needs lots of cuddles and reassurance from you. When they’re ill, they’re likely to become whiny and clingy. They may like to be read the same story over and over again, or they may just want your comforting presence nearby. Take your cue from your child, and give them as much time and attention as you can.

There’s usually no need to put them to bed – they’ll probably prefer a cosy nest on the sofa near to where you are. Make sure their teddies and other favourite possessions are there too, and take some time to read to them or do a puzzle together to take their mind off their woes. If they have been sick, pop a bucket nearby. Be understanding about any mopping up, however horrid it is! And be prepared for your child to regress a little: a recently toilet-trained toddler may have a few accidents when they’re ill, for example.

Don’t lose your patience – your little one can’t help it right now.

Eating and drinking

It’s really important to make sure your little one drinks plenty of fluids when they’re ill – especially if they have a fever, diarrhoea or vomiting, as they’re in danger of becoming dehydrated. Keep water or very diluted juice nearby, and encourage them to drink it as much as you can. A fun cup and a novelty straw can help! You can give them sweet drinks while they’re poorly too – a child may need more sugar when they’re ill. Sick children often eat less, but this doesn’t usually matter too much – your little one will regain their appetite once they’re better. If they’re feeling hungry, give them bland foods like pasta or mashed potato, which won’t unsettle their stomach.


Your child may not sleep so well, perhaps because they’re feverish or their nose is blocked. Paracetamol or ibuprofen will help lower a fever and ease discomfort – always check the label to make sure you use the correct dose for your child’s age. There are lots of over-the-counter, menthol-based decongestants too, so ask your pharmacist what’s suitable for your child. Don’t worry though – they’ll get back into their normal sleep routine once they’re better.


A fever (a temperature of 38°C or above) isn’t always a bad thing, as it’s thought to help the body fight off infection. But a high temperature can cause a headache, make your child fretful and also increases the risk of dehydration. If their fever is over 38.5°C or they feel miserable, you can reduce it with a dose of liquid paracetamol or ibuprofen. If your toddler’s temperature rises above 40°C, you can also try cooling them with a sponge soaked in tepid water. Never use cold water, as this will actually prevent heat loss by constricting the blood vessels.

Check your child’s temperature with a digital thermometer. Many parents like the ease of an ear sensor, but an under-the-arm digital thermometer is easy to use and cheaper, although it does take longer to get a reading. Strips held to the forehead are unreliable, and avoid glass thermometers as these can break and release toxic mercury.

Watching your child

A sick child’s condition can change quickly – usually for the better, though the opposite can happen too. Talk to your doctor if your child:

  • is drowsier than normal
  • refuses drinks
  • vomits repeatedly
  • complains that the light hurts their eyes
  • can’t be roused
  • has mottled or clammy skin
  • has trouble breathing
  • turns blue.

If they have any of the last five symptoms, get help urgently. Depending on how ill your child is, consider going straight to hospital. No list of symptoms is ever 100 per cent reliable, so you should also use your instincts. If you think your child is really ill, you’re probably right.


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