Having a newborn is stressful enough. When your baby gets sick, it can be absolutely terrifying.
Babies and young children are especially susceptible to ear infections because of their narrow ear canals and underdeveloped immune systems. Studies suggest that nearly 1 in 4 babies will have an ear infection before their first birthday.
If you’re concerned that your newborn might be suffering from an ear infection, here’s how you can tell and what you can do to help them get better.
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Can newborns get ear infections?
YES. Ear infections usually develop after an upper respiratory infection like a cold. The infection causes inflammation and congestion in the sinus cavities that can spread to the ear canals.
This provides a perfect environment for bacteria to grow. Because newborns’ immune systems are not fully developed, they have a harder time fighting off infections and are more susceptible to developing secondary infections, like ear infections, than older children.
How do I know if my newborn has an ear infection?
Since most ear infections occur before children are able to speak, most parents are told to watch for their baby pulling or tugging on their ears. However, some babies may do this to self-soothe or just explore their bodies, so this alone might not be a cause for concern.
Your baby might have an ear infection if they are tugging on their ears and experiencing one or more of these symptoms:
Fussiness and crying. If your baby isn’t feeling well, they’re likely to be more irritable and cry more than normal.
Trouble sleeping. An earache or general discomfort from being unwell can make it hard for them to sleep. If you notice your baby is sleeping less than normal, it might be a sign they’re sick.
Fever. If your baby is less than 3 months old and has a temperature of 100.4 degrees F (38 degrees C), go to the nearest emergency room immediately. Any fever in a newborn can be a sign of a serious infection.
Discharge from ears. Especially if it is white or yellow as opposed to clear. An unpleasant smell coming from your baby’s ear is also a cause for concern.
Loss of Appetite. Congestion from an upper respiratory infection can make it harder for babies to feed if they can’t breathe through their nose, and infections of all kinds can cause decreased appetite, and even vomiting or diarrhea.
Trouble hearing or responding to quiet sounds. Inflammation and congestion in the ear canals can affect your baby’s ability to hear. If you suddenly notice they are less responsive to noises than usual, this could be a sign of an ear infection.
Remember, you know your baby best. If they just aren’t acting like themselves, they’re probably not feeling their best.
Will an ear infection go away on its own or will my newborn need antibiotics?
Most doctors will prescribe antibiotics to treat suspected ear infections in babies younger than 6 months old.
While most ear infections are viral and will clear up on their own in a few days, very young babies are in danger of developing more severe bacterial infections.
It’s better to be safe than sorry. Make sure your newborn takes their entire course of antibiotics, even if they seem to be feeling better.
How long will an ear infection last?
An ear infection will last only a few days. With antibiotics, your baby will probably start feeling better in 24-48 hours.
What can I do to help my baby feel better?
With or without antibiotics, here are some ways you can help relieve your baby’s discomfort:
Warm compress. Running a cloth under warm water and holding it to your baby’s ear can help loosen the congestion causing their earache and relieve some of the pain.
Fluids. Drinking plenty of formula or breastmilk can also help thin out the congestion causing their pain. The action of swallowing also helps drain the middle ear canal and relieve pressure. If your baby doesn’t have much of an appetite, just be patient and keep offering the breast or bottle. Some fluids are better than no fluids.
Warm oil. If there’s no discharge coming from their ears, and your doctor does not suspect a ruptured eardrum, you can place a few drops of room temperature or slightly warm oil into their ears. Make sure the oil isn’t too warm–use the same method you would to check the temperature of baby formula.
Elevate their head. This will help improve sinus drainage and reduce the pressure in their ears. The easiest way to do this with a newborn is to hold them while they sleep–just make sure you’re not lying flat.
Homeopathic eardrops. These are made from extracts of plants that have natural anti-inflammatory properties–like garlic, lavender, or St. John’s Wort–mixed with olive oil. A few drops in each ear will help relieve inflammation and pain.
Over-the-counter pain relievers like Tylenol or Advil are not recommended for babies under 6 months old.
Do not give your baby any over-the-counter medications without first consulting their pediatrician.
Will breastmilk help my baby’s ear infection?
Breastfeeding is a great way to help prevent ear infections from happening. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends babies be exclusively breastfed for 6 months and continue breastfeeding up to 12 months, even if you begin supplementing with formula and solid foods, to reduce the risk of ear infections.
Babies receive antibodies and other immunity boosters from their mother via breastmilk. This can help fight off viral and bacterial infections and help prevent ear infections from developing in the first place.
Breastfed babies also need to suck harder than bottle-fed babies, which might also protect against ear infections by helping drain the ear canal.
It is important you encourage your breastfed baby to nurse when they have an ear infection so they continue to receive the immunity benefits from their mother, as well as the other benefits of fluids discussed earlier.
However, there is no evidence that putting breastmilk in your baby’s ear will treat an ear infection.