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What's the best way to take my preschooler's temperature?
If you think your child has a fever, you'll need a good digital thermometer to take his temperature. We can help you choose the right one for your child. (Get more details in our thermometer buying guide.)
Regular multi-use digital thermometers are sold in drugstores for less than $10. They're easy to use, easy to read, and fast, typically giving a reading in 10 seconds to two minutes. Most can be used orally, rectally, or under the arm. If you have a multi-use thermometer, designate it for just one area to avoid spreading bacteria.
Hold off on taking your child's temperature orally until your child is at least 4 or 5 years old. By that age he'll be better able to hold a thermometer in his mouth safely and keep it under his tongue for the required time.
Taking your child's temperature rectally gives the most accurate results, but a preschooler is likely to protest this method and squirm, raising the risk of injury or ending up with an inaccurate reading.
An armpit (axillary) temperature reading can give you a sense of whether your child's temperature is elevated, but it's far less accurate than other methods.
Your best bet for getting a precise temperature reading with a preschooler is a temporal artery (forehead) thermometer, which uses an infrared scanner to measure temperature with a simple swipe across the forehead. They're more expensive but quite accurate if used properly. They're also fast and easy to use.
Ear thermometers (tympanic) must be placed correctly in your child's ear canal for a reliable reading. Earwax can cause an inaccurate reading.
Doctors say other temperature-taking tools, such as pacifier thermometers and temperature-sensitive strips that you place on a child's forehead, are too inaccurate to be useful.
Whichever method you choose, don't take your child's temperature right after a bath, when his body temperature is likely to be temporarily elevated. Wait at least 20 minutes after bath time for an accurate reading.
Note: Old-fashioned glass thermometers can shatter and leak toxic mercury. If you still have one around the house, learn how to dispose of it properly. (Check online to find the nearest household hazardous waste site.)
How to use a temporal artery (forehead) thermometer
Temporal artery thermometers are very easy to use – once you know how to use them.
Be sure to read the directions carefully. If you don't have the directions at your fingertips, you should be able to find them online on the manufacturer's website. If you have difficulty, ask your doctor for guidance.
The basic technique involves positioning the thermometer flat on your child's forehead midway between the eyebrow and the hairline. Press the button and – keeping the thermometer in contact with your child's skin – swipe the thermometer in a straight line across the forehead (not down the side of the face).
Without releasing the button, lift the thermometer off the forehead. Then release the button and read the temperature.
The way temporal artery thermometers determine temperature is quite sophisticated, but essentially the reading is based on an artery that is close to the surface of the skin in the forehead.
How to use an ear thermometer
Ear thermometers are quick and safe, and not at all uncomfortable for children. But they can be a bit tricky to use.
If you have an ear thermometer, ask your child's doctor to show you how to use it properly or practice following the directions on the package until you get a consistent result. Once you consistently hit the mark, you can rely on the ear thermometer.
How to take an armpit temperature
Some doctors recommend taking a child's temperature in her armpit, which is called the axillary temperature. All you need is a regular multi-use digital thermometer. Bear in mind that an external armpit reading can be as much as 2 degrees lower than an internal rectal reading.
For an armpit reading, undress your child from the waist up and sit her on your lap or next to you. Try to keep her relaxed and occupied by showing her a book or a toy.
Make sure your child's underarm area is dry, and slip the bulb of the thermometer into her armpit. The bulb needs to be in full contact with her skin, so hold your baby's arm firmly against her side or bent and folded across her chest. When the thermometer beeps, take it out and read the display.
How to take an oral temperature
You may be able to take your child's temperature orally once he's about 4 years old. If you try this method and find that your child can't hold the thermometer in his mouth or keep it under his tongue for the required time, you'll need to go back to another method until he's a bit older.
To give it a try, wash the thermometer with lukewarm soapy water or rubbing alcohol, then rinse it with cool water. Turn it on. Place the bulb of the thermometer under your child's tongue, near the back of his mouth. Hold the thermometer in place until it beeps, then remove it and read the display.