How to Take a Child’s Temperature

Fevers, believe it or not, are good for the body. Yes, they may make your normally happy-go-lucky child miserable, but inside their body is doing all the right things. A fever is the body’s natural way of fighting off illness: the bacteria or viruses that make your little one suffer don’t thrive so well at higher temperatures. So when you discover your child is running a temperature, even a higher one, there’s no reason to panic.

You may know your kid is feverish just by feeling his forehead or using your parental instincts to observe his behavior. But when you call or use pingmd to get the pediatrician’s advice, she’s going to want to know: what’s the number?

Currently, the AAP recommends only two different types of thermometers for accurate temperature-taking: digital and tympanic (in-ear) thermometers. Of these two, digital thermometers are known for higher rates of accuracy.  If you have any old mercury thermometers hanging around in your house – throw them out! You may remember using these when you were young, but due to the harmful toxins within, the AAP does not advise continued use. (And educate yourself on what to do in the event of a mercury spill!)

There are three ways to take a child’s temperature, and the best method depends on the child’s age:

Rectally – Ages 0-5yrs 

This is the most accurate way to take a temperature for a child under 3 months, according to the AAP.

1. Clean the thermometer thoroughly with soap, water & rubbing alcohol.

2. Place petroleum jelly on the tip of the thermometer.

3. Lay your child stomach-down on a flat surface, lifting his feet towards his chest so his bottom is exposed. Make sure he seems comfortable, and try to hold him still gently during the event. You can also try lying him flat over your lap.

4. Insert the thermometer 1/2 inch to 1 inch into the rectum and stop if you feel any resistance. When the digital thermometer beeps (or after about 1 minute), remove.

Orally – Ages 4yrs+ 

An oral temperature is another accurate option. When you begin taking your child’s temperature orally, buy a new thermometer and clearly label it against the rectal thermometer. Do not use the same the thermometer for both methods – no matter how well you clean them!

1. Clean the thermometer thoroughly with soap, cold water, and alcohol.

2. Place the tip of the thermometer under the child’s tongue and have him close his mouth tight. When the thermometer beeps (or after about 1 minute), remove.

Axillary – Ages 3mo +

This method is generally considered less accurate than an oral or a rectal temperature by the AAP, but may come in handy if your child is experiencing gastrointestinal issues, is too congested to take an oral temperature, or is just plain fussy.

1. Clean the thermometer thoroughly with soap, cold water, and alcohol.

2. Place the thermometer under the armpit and hold until you hear the beep, or after about 1 minute.

With a tympanic thermometer:

1. Clean the tip of the thermometer with a swap dipped in rubbing alcohol. With a Q-tip, clean the child’s ear to remove any wax buildup. An excess of wax in the ear can throw of a tympanic thermometer’s accuracy.

2. Turn the thermometer on, place in the ear, and wait for the beep, or for the display to appear.

Follow these guidelines and you’ll be sure to give your pediatrician an accurate reading from home anytime! Remember, fever is normal, and in most cases just has to run its natural course. Call the doctor immediately if your child under 3 months of age and develops a fever of any temperature. Always report cases of fever to your pediatrician, especially if your child is listless, not eating well, or just not his usual self.

Sources: AAP’s Healthy Children, Mayo Clinic

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