Baby Now and Zen: Medicine Cabinet

Dr. Spock

What should I have in the medicine chest circa 1940s?

rectal thermometer
absorbent cotton: one pound and toothpicks or toothpick swabs
zinc ointment
baby oil and cod liver oil

These were suggested by Dr. Benjamin Spock in his classic baby care book. The cotton and toothpicks were to make cotton swabs to clean nose and ears. The cod liver oil was given as a vitamin D supplement.

What should I have in the medicine chest circa 2015?

Stocking the newborn medicine chest is easy–all you really need is a digital thermometer.   Rectal temperatures are preferred in infants, but in a pinch you can take an axillary (underarm) temperature. Ear thermometers are best for children over one year old. We no longer recommend old-fashioned glass thermometers because if they break, the mercury is hazardous.

Another essential piece of equipment is the bulb syringe. The hospital will provide the one that was used to clear your baby’s mouth and nose at delivery. Hang onto it because the ones sold in the store tend not to be as good as the hospital model. When used with or without salt-water nose drops, the bulb syringe is good for suctioning mucus from your baby’s nose during colds.  Cool mist humidifiers may also help when baby’s nose is congested. Cool mist machines are preferred because they pose less of a risk for burns.

A trip down the children’s medication aisle is enough to give any parent an ulcer, but for now remember one thing: Never give any medicine to your newborn without first checking with the pediatrician. Always measure medicines with droppers that are calibrated; you’ll need a one medicine dropper that measures 5 milliliters. Metric (milliliters) is more accurate than conventional teaspoons.

If you want to plan ahead, reasonable things to purchase include infant acetaminophen, salt-water drops for nasal congestion, a zinc-based diaper cream and an oral rehydration solution like Pedialyte. Check the expiration date on anything before you buy it, because chances are you won’t need any of these for the first months. Don’t store medications in the bathroom medicine cabinet. Children are excellent climbers and explorers. Keep all medications and hazardous material securely stored away.

Take the time to put the Poison Control number in your phone now: (800)222-1222.

About Lisa M. Asta, MD

Lisa M. Asta, M.D. is board-certified by the American Board of Pediatrics and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, for which she is also a Media Representative (she has been interviewed for “Kids Health” on Health Radio, and quoted in Parenting Magazine, USA Today, and the New York Times, among other publications). She is a Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California at San Francisco and past pediatric chair at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek. She graduated from Temple University School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Asta is also a writer whose fiction has appeared in Inkwell, Philadelphia Stories, Schuylkill, and Zeniada. Her essays have appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Hippocrates, the San Jose Mercury News, and The New Physician Magazine. She is an occasional contributor to KQED public radio’s Perspectives series, and has written articles for Bay Area Parent, Valley Parent, Parents’ Press, and Parents Express, as well as online at,, and She wrote a chapter in The Field Guide to the Normal Newborn, ed. Gary Emmet, M.D. currently has two how-to videos for parents in production which feature Dr. Asta. For more on Dr. Asta’s writing, visit
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