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What Is the Most Accurate Way to Take a Toddler's Temperature?

by Kathryn Walsh, studioD

Your toddler might be lethargic, cranky or just not himself, and sniffles have taken down everyone in your home. He doesn't yet have the vocabulary to describe his condition, and your thermometer is the best way to deduce whether he needs medical care. An accurate thermometer is a must for every medicine cabinet. In a small child, a difference of a few degrees in temperature can make a big difference.

Comparing Methods

The trusty mercury thermometer that gauged your childhood fevers isn't the best option for parents today. When comparison shopping you'll find thermometers geared for use in the mouth, armpit, ear, rectum and even on the forehead. First things first: digital thermometers tend to be the most accurate way of getting a reading, according to KidsHealth.org. A thermometer intended for use in the mouth, armpit or rectum -- typically a device about the size of a nail file, which narrows to a rounded tip -- is generally the most accurate type to use. A forehead scanner, which measures the temperature of the temporal artery, is the quickest and easiest method of taking a toddler's temperature, but not as accurate as a digital device, says KidsHealth.

Digital Options

With a multipurpose digital thermometer, you're faced with three options. Taking your toddler's temperature under his armpit is the least accurate way to use this type of digital thermometer, according to MayoClinic.com. Taking his temperature orally, or by mouth, might be your easiest option -- but getting a toddler to hold still and keep the thermometer closed in his mouth for a minute or more might be tricky, and if his nose is stuffed up, he won't be able to breathe well. Taking his temperature rectally will likely be the most difficult method, but it's also the best way to accurately measure the temperature of a child younger than three years old, says HealthyChildren.org. So if your toddler will allow it, use the thermometer in his rectum. An ear thermometer may also work, but if your toddler's ear canal is too small, or if he has an ear infection, you won't get an accurate reading.

Taking His Temperature

The directions that come with your thermometer will provide instructions for safe use. Before each use, wash your thermometer with soap and water or rubbing alcohol. With an oral method, your biggest challenge will be keeping your tot comfortable and still while you wait to hear the signal that the reading is done. Letting him watch a short video on your computer might keep him entranced long enough for the thermometer to work. He shouldn't eat or drink anything in the 30 minutes prior to the reading, says MayoClinic.com. To take a rectal temperature, help him lie down on his stomach and lift his bottom into the air. Rub petroleum jelly over the sensor tip and insert the thermometer no further than 1 inch into his rectum. Don't push it further if you feel resistance. Perhaps the most important tip for using a thermometer rectally: label it clearly so it will never be used in someone's mouth.

Toddlers and Fever

Once you have an accurate temperature reading, you're equipped to make the next move. A temperature or 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher is generally considered a fever, though he probably doesn't need treatment if a low fever if your child's only symptom. KidsHealth.org suggests calling the doctor if your toddler's temperature is 102.2 degrees or higher. Call the pediatrician if he has a low fever but has other worrisome symptoms, like if he's unusually irritable or has ear pain. And if you're ever unsure of what to do about your toddler's fever, don't hesitate to contact the pediatrician for advice.

About the Author

Cooking, travel and parenting are three of Kathryn Walsh's passions. She makes chicken nuggets during days nannying, whips up vegetarian feasts at night and road trips on weekends. Her work has appeared to The Syracuse Post-Standard and insider magazine. Walsh received a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.

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