Why it’s ok to overreact if your baby has a cold

Esther Walker

About nine months after Kitty was born I realised why little Victorian children in little dusty brown books talk about their ‘nurse’ or ‘nursemaid’.

It’s because children are so ill all the bloody time that the person who takes care of them is, to all intents and purposes, a nurse. I thought Kitty must have something wrong with her, she was ill so much in her first winter. I blamed not breastfeeding enough, but now I know that it’s just winter – that’s just what happens.

Her nose was like a faulty tap. This is not even taking into account the throat infection she caught when she was only five months old. Then there were the endless coughs that seemed to go on for weeks on end. One cough she had would wake her up in the middle of the night and make her vomit. And then there was Rotavirus! Ha, that was fun (it wasn’t). That was three weeks of constant shitting and puking.

If you are really unlucky, as I was with Kitty, you get a baby who acts like you are trying to cut its fucking head off if you even try to give it Calpol or Nurofen.

There is now, thank God, a vaccination for it, but then it made me drop to my knees and thank God for washing machines and tumble driers. Small children, I realised, are simply the soaker-uppers and giver-outers of germs. They make it their business to go looking for them on buggy wheels or in corners of cafes or on kitchen floors. In their first eighteen months they seem to be ill pretty much constantly.

And it’s a pretty rotten kind of ill, too. They do not lie quietly on the sofa watching telly, catching up with something on their Kindle and occasionally opening their mouths for more medicine. Because a child under about eighteen months doesn’t really watch telly. What babies do when they are ill is whine and cry at all times of the day and night, and you have absolutely no idea what is wrong with them.

If you are really unlucky, as I was with Kitty, you get a baby who acts like you are trying to cut its fucking head off if you even try to give it Calpol or Nurofen.

Now that she is nearly four years old, I ought to point out, Kitty is a piece of cake when she is ill. If she has a temperature she simply refuses all medicine and does indeed lie quietly on the sofa watching telly, drifting in and out of consciousness, occasionally drinking some apple juice. It’s fine, I don’t mind nursing her through it, even if she is awake and miserable in the night. I know what I am doing.

It’s babies that are so tricky, especially when they are your first and you are so totally at sea. Any temperature is terrifying the first time it happens. And the first time it goes really high, like 104 degrees or – SHRIEK! – 105, you can feel quite demented with panic. Because it means your baby or toddler most probably has meningitis.

Okay, only in your head. But those long dark nights with a feverish infant are long and they are frightening and you’ve never done this before.

ESTHER WALKER: If a Gina Ford-style routine works for you, do it!

So when anyone, whether they are a health professional or just any old person, suggests even for a minute that you might be overreacting, it’s just not fair. It’s NOT FAIR!

Okay, I might not know how to react appropriately to a massive midnight nosebleed in a thirteen-month-old, but can you calmly write 600 hilarious, correctly spelled words about making brioche for a national newspaper in 90 minutes? No, I thought not. Can you write a legal advice for a high street bank wishing to repossess a council property without gibbering with anxiety? Can you think of a brilliant marketing strategy for the ‘She-Wee’ (the portable ladies’ loo) with a straight face??? No. And no-one would expect you to be able to. So lose the freaking attitude, yeah, Mr Doctor?

At last, when your child hits about eighteen months old, you have more or less seen the full range of horrors, so you don’t do a vertical take-off at every runny eye or neon snotfest. You have also heard of horrors from others of impetigo, scarlet fever, tonsillitis and kidney infections. You are aware. You have experience.

But after that time you do occasionally see something you’ve never seen before and you’re right back there, in that awful place, where you don’t know how worried you’re supposed to be.

The bottom line is that if your child’s leg drops off, or they go blind or deaf from disease, you will cope.

The bottom line is that if your child’s leg drops off, or they go blind or deaf from disease, you will cope. Because it is your child and it doesn’t matter what’s wrong with them, you will look after them. In fact, if something disastrous happens, they will need you more, you can be more devoted, you can sacrifice more.

The thing that parents, mostly mothers on the front line, cannot cope with is the idea that they have in some way been negligent. What keeps us awake at night is the fear that we should, right now, be in hospital, not just lying in bed listening to our baby coughing. What keeps us awake is the scenario in which we did not go to hospital because we did not want to panic unduly and then in the morning the child is DEAD or irreversibly damaged and it is our fault.

I thought I had seen it all. I thought I had been so out of my mind with panic so often in the last two years, that there were no more panics left. We’ve done non-blanching rashes, Norovirus (twice), nuclear fevers, sticky eyes, terrible falls headfirst onto concrete, bizarre nappies, massive nosebleeds and eczema.

But one day when Kitty was about two her hand swelled up like a football and I completely lost my shit.

It was a bite – maybe two bites – on her left hand, which I was convinced had been administered by some large spider in the large sandpit of our local council playground. I can’t be sure, though: the biter didn’t leave a note.Anyway she was bitten and her hand went red and swelled up. Then the next day the palm of her hand was covered in disgusting little blisters, which gradually filled with PUS – oh my god … the skin was taught and red and hard.

I have animated discussions with Kitty’s nanny about which – shit or puke – we would rather clear up

Disgusting skin infections are my thing, you know? I can deal with shit and puke no trouble – lucky because those are the effluvia you have most exposure to with small children. In fact I have animated discussions with Kitty’s nanny about which – shit or puke – we would rather clear up (shit every time; puke splatters), but anything involving a rash or blisters or swelling, or pus or any sort of … growth … makes me really freak out.

But the worst thing about it was that I’d just never seen it before. And I was transported instantly back to that awful feeling – that feeling of what should I be doing?

Make an appointment to see the GP in eight weeks’ time? Go directly to the Royal Free, do not pass Go and sit there for three hours in A&E only to be sent away with no clear diagnosis. What happened next is only interesting to me, but basically Kitty’s hand was really gross for a few days and she absolutely refused to take the antibiotics prescribed for it, so I shovelled a lot of Piriton and ibuprofen down her and it gradually got better.

Meanwhile Kitty shamelessly held her swollen paw out to everyone she met, to see if they wanted to see her ‘itchy’, not that the bite or infection seemed to bother her at any point.

Only me. It just bothered me so much.In the end, this curious reaction turned out to be an allergy to nettle stings. So Kitty officially has an allergy – praise be!

All the most fashionable kids have an allergy.

This extract is taken from Esther Walker’s new book Bad Mother. If you can’t wait for the next instalment, buy and download the whole book here


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