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If your baby is younger than 3 months old, be sure to talk with his doctor before giving him acetaminophen. In fact, the doctor should take a look at him first.
Very young babies can become dangerously ill quite quickly, so if your baby has a fever or suspected pain, it's important to have him checked out. And because these pain relievers may cover up your baby's symptoms — making it harder for a doctor to diagnose the problem — you won't want to give him a dose before heading to the doctor's office.
If your baby is at least 3 months old, you can give him the proper dose of baby acetaminophen, but don't be too quick to do so. Fever helps the body fight infection, so you'll only want to bring it down if it's making your baby very uncomfortable or unable to rest. (There may be instances when a dose of acetaminophen or ibuprofen will comfort your baby when he isn't sick but is in pain — if he's teething, for example)
If your baby is 6 months or older and his fever reaches 103 degrees F, you'll want to talk with the doctor. And if he's between 3 and 6 months, give the doctor a call for a fever that reaches 101degrees — which means that you may be chatting with the doctor anyway!
Also keep in mind that while these medications can help make your baby more comfortable, they don't do anything to heal an infection if he's ill..
Most infections are caused by viruses (which can't be helped by antibiotics), but a serious infection can also be caused by bacteria, and your baby will need an antibiotic to fight one of these. Your baby's temperature won't tell you the difference between a virus and bacteria, unfortunately. Babies and young children sometimes run high temperatures (over 103 degrees) even with minor viruses.
A good rule of thumb: If your baby looks and acts fine when his temperature is normal but is tired when his temperature climbs, he probably has a virus. That means he doesn't need an antibiotic and you may be able to make him comfortable with acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
If he has specific symptoms — like trouble breathing, grunting, pulling on his ears, or irritability — when his temperature is normal (or has come down from previous high readings thanks to medication), then you should have the doctor take a look at him. And of course, if you're just not sure, give the doctor a call.
It's crucial to give your baby the proper dose of acetaminophen or ibuprofen for his weight, using the syringe or dropper that comes with the bottle, not a teaspoon. If you give him too little, the medication may not work and you'll be tempted to give him more in another four hours, whereas if you get the dose correct, the effect lasts longer.
Never exceed the recommended doses per day, either: five doses of acetaminophen per day or three doses of ibuprofen per day. Better yet, limit it to only one or two doses per day of either. Too much acetaminophen can be toxic to the liver, and ibuprofen can be toxic to the kidneys and cause stomach upset when taken continuously.
(Editors' note: Acetaminophen concentrated infant drops are being phased out and replaced by an infant medicine that's less concentrated. Find out how to tell the difference between old and new infant acetaminophen, and talk to your doctor or use our dosage chart to find the correct dose by weight.)