7 Danger Signs in Infants

Newborn babies can easily fall sick in the first few days of life, and this is why it is imperative that mothers and their families are aware of danger signs in infants. Delays in getting appropriate medical attention can prove fatal for babies.

According to UNICEF, 2.5 Million children died in the first four weeks of life in 2018.

“The neonatal period is the most vulnerable time for a child”

Knowledge of new parents about these warning signs is key in improving maternal and child outcomes. It is also essential in reducing preventable deaths of infants within the first year of life. While some of these danger signs may be hard for families to pinpoint, a number of them are commonly known thanks to learning sessions at many Maternal & Child Health Clinics.

WHO categorises danger signs in infants as shown below.

WHO-recognized danger signs in infants

  1. Not feeding since birth/ was feeding well and stopped feeding
  2. Convulsions
  3. Breathing complications (fast breathing or difficulty breathing)
  4. Temperature changes ( fever or hypothermia)
  5. Body weakness or lethargy
  6. Yellowing of the eyes and/or skin
  7. Draining of pus (from the umbilical cord, eyes or other parts of the body.)

Let us look at each of these danger signs in infants in greater detail.

Read More: 5 Danger Signs in Pregnancy

1.      Not feeding since birth or refusal to feed

Inability to feed, even after the baby has been placed on the breast is an indication that the baby may be suffering from a serious health condition. This also applies if a baby had been feeding well after birth, but then refuses or is unable to nurse. In both cases, the baby does not get the nutrition they need to grow and develop well. When this is combined with an infection, it places the baby’s life in danger. It is important that you do not dismiss this as something that will improve with time. Instead, make sure that your baby gets medical attention immediately.

2.      Convulsions

A convulsion is the term used to describe when a baby’s brain gets an abrupt burst of electrical activity. When this happens, it interferes with normal functioning and communication in the brain. Since the brain is at the centre of body functioning, when seizures occur, they affect different parts of the body differently.

When a baby experiences a convulsion, their limbs typically become very stiff and they may stop breathing. This is sometimes accompanied by repeated movements of certain parts of the body, such as blinking of the eyes and mouth twitching.

It is important to note that babies are prone to what is known as febrile convulsions. This category of convulsions is triggered by an increase in the body temperature (fever). These convulsions often stem from infections that are accompanied by a fever.

Whether occurring as a result of body temperature changes or otherwise, convulsions are a danger sign in infants and warrant immediate medical attention.

3.      Breathing complications

Breathing complications present one of the danger signs in infants. This is associated with respiratory distress such that the baby works extremely hard to breathe, and is unable to get enough oxygen to the lungs. Breathing complications are usually the result of blocked air passages, chronic illness and numerous infections, for which infants need to be rushed to the nearest health facility.

Signs and symptoms of breathing complications in infants

  • Pale or bluish skin, particularly around the eyes, lips, hands and feet. This occurs because the body tissues are not getting enough oxygen.
  • Chest indrawing refers to the inward movement of the lower chest wall when the baby breathes in. As this is happening, the upper chest moves out, thus creating a deep groove between the chest and abdomen. Chest indrawing is a sign of severe pneumonia and should never be taken lightly as it means the baby’s life is in danger.
chest indrawing danger sign infants
Image showing chest indrawing in a sick infant. Credits
  • Increased breathing is also another common sign of breathing complications. Fast breathing is defined as more than 60 breaths per minute, where a breath is an outward (the chest expands when we breathe in) and inward (the chest contracts when we breathe out) movement. Refer to Page 100 of this WHO publication on more information on how to count the number of breaths in infants.
  • Nasal flaring where the nostrils widen during breathing to increase the size of the upper airway.

Watch this video on recognizing respiratory distress in infants for more in-depth information.


4.      Temperature changes

Normal body temperature usually varies from one person to another. Research shows that this range tends to be slightly higher in infants. Regardless of these differences, the normal temperature in infants is about 36.4 degrees Celsius (this can vary slightly). Temperatures above or below this normal range interfere with the normal functioning of the body. When your child has a higher temperature than normal, they are said to have a fever, while lower temperatures than normal led to hypothermia. Both of these temperature changes present danger signs in infants.


Your baby has a fever if their temperature is 38 degrees Celsius or higher. Fever is usually indicative of an infection or some form of illness in the body, and this is why it is a danger sign in infants. Because their immune systems are not well developed, infections, if not caught on early, can lead to severe illnesses and even death.


Hypothermia is a medical emergency that occurs when an infant experiences low body temperature of less than 36.5 degrees Celsius. This happens because the body loses heat faster that it can produce it, placing the baby at risk. Hypothermia, particularly in premature babies, contributes to neonatal death across the world.

Infants get cold quite easily for the simple reason that they lack the ability to regulate their body temperatures like adults. This is why infants need to be kept warm, particularly in the first few days after birth. One of the ways that this can be done is through Kangaroo Mother Care.

Read More: Here is what Kangaroo Mother Care entails

5.      Body weakness or lethargy

You may realize that your baby seems to have very little energy, or is sleeping for a little longer than they usually do. Even when they wake up, they may still feel a little sluggish. It is lso hard for them to stay alert or to respond to visual stimulation. This lethargy may be a sign of an infection, or a medical complication such as low levels of blood glucose. Make sure that your baby sees a medical doctor as soon as possible.

6.      Yellowing of the eyes and soles

Other danger signs which you should look out for, and which are recognized by the WHO, include the yellowing of the eyes or the soles as well as the draining of pus. The yellowing of the baby’s eyes and soles is usually attributed to jaundice. In the first week of life, babies can get mild jaundice which usually disappears or is treated using light therapy.

Some babies, however, develop more severe jaundice where the accumulation of bilirubin causes the pigmentation of the eyes and soles of the feet. Bilirubin is the yellow pigment that accumulates in the body when the baby’s liver is not able to get rid of red blood cells broken down in the body. When there is an unusually high amount of bilirubin, the baby is at increased risk of brain damage. Yellowing of the eyes and soles therefore, becomes a danger sign in babies.

Remember to look for this sign in natural light. It is hard to determine whether the skin colour is yellow under artificial light.

7.      Draining of pus

The draining of pus and redness at the affected area is usually an indication of local infection. This is one of the danger signs in infants because local infection, if not caught early, can easily progress to severe infection. Look out for the draining of pus particularly at the stump of the umbilical cord, the skin as well as the eyes. Sometimes, the draining pus will be accompanied by a foul smell due to the infection.

One of the ways to help keep your baby in good health is to breastfeed your child (whenever possible). Breast milk provides your baby with antibodies that build up their immune system and help fight off diseases. To add to this, make sure you follow your baby’s vaccination schedule to protect them from vaccine-preventable diseases. Remember, even if you do not recognize any of these danger signs but have a gut feeling or are worried, do not hesitate to get your baby medical attention – better safe than sorry.

Tunza Mama offers a wide range of services for mothers and their families, ranging from birth preparation classes, postpartum care services, breastfeeding support and complimentary feeding. Get in touch with us today 0709 256200 for more information and we will connect you to a caregiver.