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Deborah Blum was worried. Already she had soothed her screaming 6-month-old child, Marcus, back to bed — twice. At 3 a.m., when Marcus woke a third time, that was it. With dad, baby and diaper bag in tow, she sped off to the hospital. Within an hour, they had the diagnosis: an ear infection.
More than 9 million sick babies and toddlers land in the emergency room each year. Like Marcus, a quarter of them have an ear infection (otitis media), making this the No. 1 ER diagnosis in kids under age 3. “We just couldn’t tell what was wrong,” says Blum, a writer in Madison, Wis. “He didn’t even pull on his ear.”
And that’s the problem. Babies rarely point to the source of pain. They just cry — and cry, and cry. In a panic, and especially at night, parents often decide the ER is their best option. But is it?
Emergency room risks
Blum was lucky. Although her baby’s condition was not life-threatening, she did get the help that she needed fairly quickly. But there are risks to going directly to an ER. One of them is that your baby could pick up another illness. “Hospitals are like the sewers of the city, with bacterial infections lurking around,” says Bob Wiebe, M.D., director of pediatric emergency medicine at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas. “And the younger the baby, the greater the risk from bacteria or viruses.”
Another problem is that even if your child is crying and uncomfortable, you may have to wait hours before a doctor can see you. What’s more, pediatric care is not always available in every ER. To be smart, gather some information now about pediatric symptoms and local hospitals, so you know your options before that panicky middle-of-the-night situation arises. In some cases, there may actually be better choices than a trip to the ER.
What your doctor can do
Some conditions may seem scary but are really not that serious. Your doctor can help you make that determination. So, short of an obviously life-threatening condition, to find out if your baby’s condition really warrants the trip, call your pediatrician before heading off to the ER. (Some insurance companies require you to call your pediatrician first.) Many conditions are better handled by a visit to the doctor rather than to an ER. Here are five common ones.
Doctors may field more calls about diaper contents than anything else. Either a baby has too much, too little or the wrong kind. “Parents get concerned if a child hasn’t had a stool in one day,” says Susan Fuchs, M.D., a pediatric emergency physician at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. “But as long as your baby’s not crying or irritable, it’s probably OK.” Sometimes switching from breast milk to formula or from formula to solid food can jolt your baby’s digestive system, causing constipation. Ask your doctor what to do.