Do I need a baby thermometer?

We have a long proud history of not knowing how to use thermometers. |  Wellcome Collection

We have a long proud history of not knowing how to use thermometers. | Wellcome Collection

My husband and I approached our first baby registry just as we did medical and graduate school. We didn't just google "baby registry must-haves" or read product reviews. We read mountains of scientific research to determine the best possible gear for our baby-genius-to-be.

Our excellently-researched but completely-unnecessary registry is summed up one item: the rectal thermometer. When we were first setting out to build our registry, we noticed that many friends and family members were registering for expensive infrared thermometers. But we knew from our research that these were not as accurate as rectal thermometers, and so we were going to get a humble but effective rectal thermometer. 

You will note that there is no Amazon link to that thermometer here, even though it is the best thermometer and even though I could bank some affiliate money if you bought it, because here's the thing: you do not need any thermometer. 

I'd like to give you 98.6 reasons not to buy a thermometer, but that would strain the patience of even the most thorough registry researchers. So here are my top 3.

You don't need a thermometer to recognize a fever

There are plenty of other signs that your child is ill. Dull eyes, warm-to-hot skin, flushed skin, general drowsiness...these are all things you can tell very well for yourself without bothering your child with a temperature reading. 

No matter how accurate a thermometer is at measuring a fever, it doesn't provide useful medical information to a parent who is already aware that a child has a fever. 

Your pediatrician will not act differently because of a temperature

Temperature measurements are most useful when they are gathered consistently over time. If your child is admitted to the hospital, frequent temperature readings can help physicians monitor his progress. But that level of measurement is both impractical and unhelpful at home. 

In its guidelines for treating fever, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) describes the difference between doctors' and parents' understanding of fever. Parents are laser-focused on keeping their children's temperature "normal," and as a result, giving their children fever-reducing medication like acetaminophen (Tylenol). Parents tended to do this even when their children had temperatures under 100°F. 

Doctors, on the other hand, were less focused on the fever and more on the underlying illness. They tended not to recommend antipyretics (an awesome medical term for fever-reducing medications) until children's fevers reached 101°F. Even with high fevers, they only recommended antipyretics when children showed discomfort. That's in large part because the fever itself is a sign that the body is responding to illness, slowing the growth of bacteria and viruses. 

But you will act differently

In general, your pediatrician won't act differently because of the number on the thermometer. But you will. 

Because of your own adult experiences with fever, a high temperature reading may panic you. But adult temperatures and child temperatures are not the same. A fever of 102°F may make you extremely uncomfortable and keep you at home binge watching House of Cards for a few days. A child with a fever of 102°F may want to be curled up on the couch with you, but she may just as likely just be a little cranky. She might still want to play all day. That's because, in general, children run higher fevers than adults. The number on the thermometer is much less important than a child's behavior. 

Knowing your child's temperature may also unnecessarily panic you about febrile seizures, which are incorrectly associated with high fevers. Febrile seizures seem terrifying to parents, but they are generally harmless. There's nothing you can do to prevent a febrile seizure anyway, so it's best to just keep snuggling your child and not interrupt his rest with unnecessary temperature readings. 

Because the numbers on the thermometer don't make much medical difference, parents-to-be shouldn't worry about having the best thermometer. They might not even bother buying one. Having the best gear doesn't mean you actually needed the gear in the first place. 

If this gear review helped you slim down your baby registry and you want to spend a little of that cash you're saving, consider buying something you actually will need once the baby comes, like this one-handed hairdryer that will let you hold a sick baby while getting ready.