Different types of thermometers and your squirmy toddler 

Toddlers can be super squirmy even on a good day, but when toddlers feel sick, one of the last things they’re in the mood for is to sit still long enough to have their temperature taken. If Baby looks flushed, feels warm, or is showing other signs of fever or flu (like sweating or shivering), you might need to break out the thermometer to take their temp.

Digital thermometers are the most accurate type of thermometer out on the market. They’re fast, too, getting a reading of your little one’s temperature in just about a minute, which is great when Baby doesn’t want to sit still for long.

Most digital thermometers will beep or flash to let you know when they are done taking a reading, but they do come in a number of different types that work in different ways.

The normal temperature range – and what is technically considered a fever – also varies depending on what sort of a thermometer you use and what type of reading you employ. Here’s the lowdown on your options, so you’ll know just what to do when temperatures are high.

Basic digital thermometer
A basic digital thermometer – sometimes called a digital multiuse thermometer – can be used to take an axillary reading (under the arm), an oral reading (in the mouth), or a rectal reading (in the anus). Each of these kinds of readings has its benefits and drawbacks:

  • An underarm or axillary reading isn’t as reliable as the other two kinds of readings and will call for Baby to sit still for about a minute, but it can be a very useful screening option to get a better sense of whether or not they may have a fever, and this option can be used at any age. When you place the thermometer under their armpit, make sure that it’s touching their skin, not their clothing. With a little bit of snuggling to hold their arm in place – plus a bit of distraction with a song or a silly face – you should be able to get Baby to cooperate. With an underarm reading, Baby has a fever if they have a temperature reading of 99 F (37.2 C) or higher.
  • An oral reading is meant to be used with older children – 4 to 5 years or older – and if taken correctly can lead to a rather accurate reading. This option calls for a more advanced degree of sitting still, as the thermometer will need to be placed under Baby’s tongue with their mouth closed gently around the thermometer. If you think your little one can do so now, you may be able to give it a shot, but it might be a couple more years before you can go this route. For a good oral reading, make sure the thermometer has been cleaned with rubbing alcohol or soap and water and that it’s been at least 15 minutes since Baby has had something hot or cold to eat. With an oral reading, Baby has a fever if they have a temperature reading of 100 F (37.8 C) or higher.
  • While a rectal reading is the most accurate, this sort of a reading can cause harm to a child’s rectum or anus if not done properly, so it’s not really recommended that parents do this at home. So you might want to start with other screening options (and there are even more options below) to first get a sense of whether or not Baby has a fever, and then move onto a rectal reading only if recommended by your healthcare provider. You can use this sort of reading for children up to 3 or even 5 years old, especially if Baby gets a little bigger but still isn’t yet able to cooperate for an oral reading. To take a rectal reading, make sure your thermometer has been cleaned with rubbing alcohol or soap and water. Then coat the end in a bit of lubricant, like a petroleum jelly, to make insertion more comfortable. To insert, place Baby across your lap, either tummy down with a palm on their lower back or tummy up with legs bent up to their chest. Place the thermometer in their rectum just 1/2 to 1 inch – not too far – and hold it in place loosely with just a few fingers while the rest of your hand cups their bottom. Essentially, you want to keep the thermometer gently in place and try to keep Baby still. (And once you’re done, clean the thermometer again and label it as a rectal thermometer, just such so it doesn’t get used for other types of readings.) With a rectal reading, Baby has a fever if they have a temperature reading of 100.4 F (38 C) or higher.

Other digital thermometer options

  • Temporal artery (forehead) thermometer: This is a digital thermometer that takes a reading once the thermometer is briefly run across an individual’s forehead. It reads infrared heat waves released by the temporal artery, an artery that runs across the forehead and lies just below the skin. These thermometers are not always entirely accurate, but they can be a great way to get a quick sense of whether or not your little one is heating up. When a child is very young or particularly squirmy, this can be another great screening option because it’s among the quickest of the bunch. With a temporal artery reading, Baby has a fever if they have a temperature reading of 100.4 F (38 C) or higher.

  • Tympanic (ear) thermometer: Another digital thermometer that reads infrared heat waves, a tympanic thermometer is placed in the ear to read heat waves released by the eardrum. This is a thermometer that also takes a rather speedy reading, but it does have some downsides. It’s not terribly reliable when used on babies under 6 months old, and with older children, it needs to be placed in a child’s ear canal just right to get an accurate reading. To do so, pull Baby’s ear back just a bit, then place the thermometer in their ear canal. If there’s a lot of earwax in their’s ear, this can also cause an inaccurate reading. And you can’t use this sort of a thermometer if Baby has recently been bathed, been swimming, or if they are experiencing ear pain. With a tympanic reading, Baby has a fever if they have a temperature reading of 100.4 F (38 C) or higher.

There are a number of other thermometers out on the market, from old-fashioned mercury thermometers to skin strip thermometers to newfangled digital ones shaped like pacifiers. But many of these aren’t accurate or even safe.

Glass thermometers filled with mercury aren’t recommended anymore, and the American Academy of Pediatrics actually recommends that such thermometers be removed from the home because mercury is an environmental toxin – so if you do have one, you’ll want to keep it far away from Baby and ask your pediatrician where you can safely dispose of it.

There are even ‘green’ glass thermometers that don’t contain mercury, but you don’t want to use these with toddlers just in case they were to bite down too hard on the glass. And pacifier or skin strip thermometers don’t provide accurate readings.

Keep in mind that the right way to take Baby’s temperature now might be different than what you did when they were an infant and might be different still from how you’ll take their temperature a few years from now. And taking Baby’s temperature when they are able to sit still versus when they are squirmy are different experiences entirely.

Fortunately, there are a wealth of different options available, so you should be able to find a thermometer (or two) that will work for you. When in doubt, call your healthcare provider for guidance. They’ll help you keep cool when Baby is warm.

Read more:
  • Alyson Sulaski Wyckoff. “Thermometer use 101.” AAP News & Journals. American Academy of Pediatrics, 2009. Retrieved August 8 2017. http://www.aappublications.org/content/30/11/29.2.
  • Canadian Paediatric Society. “How to take a child’s temperature.” Paediatrics & Child Health. 5(5): 277–278. July-August 2000. Retrieved August 8 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2819919/.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Thermometer basics: Taking your chili’s temperature.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, November 6 2015. Retrieved August 8 2017. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/infant-and-toddler-health/in-depth/thermometer/art-20047410.
  • “Types of Thermometers.” Cleveland Clinic. The Cleveland Clinic Foundation, April 1 2013. Retrieved August 8 2017. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/types-of-thermometers.
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