Tips for Understanding and Managing Irritable Children

Tips for Understanding Cranky Kids

Children can become cranky, fussy or irritable for many reasons. Often it’s because they’re hungry or just tired. But sometimes irritability can be a sign of illness in children.

This health decision guide will help you figure out why your child may be irritable, what steps you can take to comfort him, and when you should contact your pediatrician for advice.

Let’s Begin

When a young baby is irritable, it can be difficult to figure out what is wrong.

How old is your child?

My child is younger than three months.

My child is older than three months.

It’s important not to ignore fussiness in your child. Irritability sometimes may indicate a serious illness.

Does your irritable child have any of these symptoms?

  • He has a high fever.
  • His neck is stiff.
  • He has a severe headache, or any other severe pain
  • He appears confused.
  • He has a rash.
  • He has difficulty breathing.
  • He won’t eat.
  • He won’t drink.

Yes, my child has one or more of these symptoms.

No, my child does not have any of these symptoms.

An upset stomach can make a child cranky. A baby with an upset stomach may refuse to eat.

Is your child’s stomach upset? Does he have diarrhea, nausea or vomiting? Or is he refusing to eat?

Yes, my child has nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.

No, my child doesn’t have these symptoms.

Stomach discomfort may cause your child to feel irritable. You should call your doctor if your child gets worse or is not improving in a day or so.

To learn more visit our guides on Abdominal Pain in Children, Vomiting or Nausea in Children, or Diarrhea in Children.

You have said that your child is irritable but does not seem to have an upset stomach, is not nauseous or vomiting, and doesn’t have diarrhea.

Fever may make a child feel irritable.

Does your child have a fever (a rectal or oral temperature reading of 100.4 F/38 C or higher)?

Yes, my child does have a fever.

No, my child doesn’t have a fever.

You have stated that your child doesn’t have an upset stomach, and isn’t feverish. Children with ear pain can be fussy and uncomfortable. If your child has an earache, he may not be sleeping well. Not sleeping also may make him irritable.

Have you noticed any of the following symptoms?

  • Your child is tugging on one or both of his ears.
  • He has ear pain.
  • There is liquid draining from his ear.

Yes, my child seems to be having a problem with his ear.

No, my child does not seem to have any ear problems.

Children may become cranky if they have a cold or the flu.

Is your child complaining of a sore throat? Is his nose runny or stuffy? Does he have any flu symptoms?

Yes, my child does seem to have a cold, or perhaps the flu.

No, my child does not appear to have a cold or the flu.

Your child doesn’t show any symptoms of an ear infection or a cold. Children who spend time with other kids or attend daycare or school are exposed to a lot of illnesses.

Do you think your child may have been near someone with an illness?

Yes, my child has been exposed to illness recently.

No, my child has not been around anyone who is ill.

You do not think your child has been around anyone recently who is ill. That’s good, although keep in mind that some illnesses are contagious before someone shows any symptoms. So, keep looking for symptoms of illness in your child.

Sometimes children are cranky because something is bothering them inside (emotionally). Children can be cranky because something stressful has happened in their lives, such as moving to a new house, one parent being away from home, or a death in the family. They may be worried about something coming up, such as having a test in school, a game or a recital, or going on a trip.

Is it possible that your child is reacting to stress?

Yes, there are some reasons that my child may be feeling stress.

No, there doesn’t appear to be any unusual stress in my child’s life.

You do not think there are any unusual stresses in your child’s life right now. Try to be sure that your child isn’t holding something back from you. Some children feel reluctant to discuss uncomfortable or stressful things.

Some children have difficulty learning due to attention problems. This may cause them to feel irritable.

Is your child fidgety? Does he have trouble paying attention most of the time?

Yes, my child seems fidgety and has a difficult time paying attention.

No, my child doesn’t seem fidgety and doesn’t have any trouble paying attention.

You have stated that your child seems irritable but does not seem to have any signs of serious illness, recent stresses, or problems with paying attention.

Call your doctor to go over your child’s symptoms and decide whether or when a visit to the office makes sense.

Call your doctor. Your child may have an attention or learning problem.

Stress certainly can cause irritability. Call your doctor for advice on how best to handle this.

Your child may be irritable because he is starting to get sick. Watch for any other symptoms that may appear. If he gets any worse, develops a fever, or doesn’t get better in a day or so, call your doctor.

Make sure your child gets plenty of liquids and plenty of rest. Call your doctor if your child gets a fever or is otherwise worse; you should also call if he’s not getting better in a day or two.

Call your pediatrician. If your child has an ear infection, he may need antibiotic treatment.

To learn more visit our Guide on Ear Pain in Infants and Children.

A fever usually means that a child has an infection. If your child is irritable and has a fever, it may be a sign of a serious infection. Call your pediatrician immediately.

Get emergency care now! Your child may have a serious illness.

Young babies can get fussy when they need to eat, are tired, or have a messy diaper. This kind of fussiness usually goes away as soon as the baby eats, sleeps, or has a clean diaper.

Are you able to calm your baby by feeding him, changing him, or giving him a nap?

Yes, I can calm my baby by doing one or more of those.

No, none of those things calm him.

You have said that your baby seems fussy but does not seem hungry or tired and does not have a messy diaper. Fussiness in a young baby can be a sign of serious illness. Call your pediatrician for more advice.

If your baby has a fever (rectal temperature reading of 100.4 F/38 C or higher), call your pediatrician immediately! Fever in a young baby can be a sign of serious illness.

It is normal for babies to act fussy when they are hungry or tired, or have a messy diaper. If your baby is still fussy after being fed, taking a nap, or getting a clean diaper, call your pediatrician for more advice. Fussiness in small babies can be a sign of illness.

If your baby has a fever (rectal temperature reading of 100.4 F/38 C or higher), call your pediatrician immediately! Fever in a young baby can be a sign of serious illness.

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