Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m feeling lethargic”?  Perhaps you too have felt “lethargic” after long nights up with the baby. To adults in everyday conversation, “lethargy” is a zombie like feeling, as if we are moving, but mentally foggy at the same time. I am sure you are familiar with that feeling if you have little ones at home! So how do you decipher between lethargy in babies and small children or if they just need a nap?

How Lethargy Presents Itself:

What is important to recognize is that lethargy in babies and small children is not the same for everyday speech and medical language. Actually, lethargy is often an absolute medical emergency, particularly in infants and children. In these younger patient populations, lethargy is seen as:

  • Difficulty arousing
  • Decreased level of consciousness when called upon
  • Not responding to name
  • Low muscle tone (difficulty standing, sitting or moving)
  • Staring off into space

As you can see, these signs and symptoms are very different from how we use the term lethargy conversationally!

What Does Lethargy in Babies & Children Mean?

Lethargy can be a sign of infection, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), dehydration, increased intracranial pressure, botulism, and even an allergic reaction. All of these events are true medical emergencies. If you believe your child is experiencing any of the above events or that they are presenting with lethargy, then you need to call 911 or go to the closest ER immediately.

How Will Medical Personnel Respond To Lethargy?

Many parents call pediatrician’s offices and report that their child is feeling lethargic. When nurses hear that a child is lethargic, our antennae go flying up. Our first instinct would be to have the family go to the closest ER or perhaps even call 911. However, first we will ask, “Can you describe their lethargy?” If the parent tells us that their child is overall tired or maybe has seemed tired and cranky all day, our heart rates return to normal. If the parent tells us that their child is experiencing the signs and symptoms of lethargy listed above, then that family will be told to call 911 immediately.

***If you notice changes in your child’s breathing, an increase in their lethargy or a quicker decline in their level of consciousness (was turning their head when you called their name 10 minutes ago and now is no longer responding) do not wait on hold with the pediatrician nurse. Call 911 immediately!

If you want to learn more about newborn care as a parent, sign up for our in-person or virtual Newborn 102 parenting education class. If you are a care provider looking to learn more, take our online Newborn Care Expert Training Program.

About The Author

Kaitlin McCarthy is a Registered Nurse and EMT. She started at Boston Baby Nurse & Nanny as a Newborn Care Specialist and then decided to go back to nursing school. Kaitlin is also the owner of Boston CPR Partners and specializes in instructing new parents, caregivers and medical personnel. She has worked in both the pre-hospital and clinical settings, most recently in the ER. Her passions lie in Emergency Medicine, Labor and Delivery and Newborn care.