Stuffy noses are frustrating enough as an adult. For a baby, however, stuffy noses are even more worrisome. Until babies are about three months old, they can only breathe out of their noses. Helping babies breathe through their stuffy nose is an important, necessary task.
So, how do you help a baby who can’t sleep because of a stuffy nose? There are a variety of things to unclog the nose a bit. There are saline drops, humidifiers, and other strategies that will help your little one sleep better. You could also try gently tapping your baby on the back. Sometimes, it’s even best just to wait it out.
The exact treatment is usually dependent on the situation, but most of these work really well. It’s highly likely that with the use of some of these strategies, your baby will be asleep in no time.
Why Is My Baby Congested?
Congestion occurs when extra fluids (mucus) accumulate in the nose and airways. This is the body’s way of fighting foreign invaders, whether they are viruses or air pollutants. Congestion may give your baby a blocked nose, noisy breathing, or mild trouble feeding.
Mild congestion is common and not much concern for babies. Babies sometimes need extra help to clear congestion because their lungs are immature and their airways are so tiny. Your care will focus on clearing any mucus from your baby’s blocked nose and keeping them comfortable.
If your baby has a stuffy nose or is congested, they may appear to be breathing faster than normal. But babies tend to breathe pretty fast already. On average, babies take 40 breaths per minute, whereas adults take 12 to 20 breaths per minute.
However, if your baby is taking more than 60 breaths per minute, or if they appear to be struggling to catch their breath, take them to an emergency room right away.
Nasal congestion can make it hard to sleep and lead to problems like a sinus infection (sinusitis). Your baby may also have trouble feeding if he or she is congested.
Fortunately, there are some telltale signs that can help you tell the difference between viral and bacterial infections.
For example, if your child has a runny nose, the color of the discharge is an important clue. Clear and watery discharge at first usually come from a virus, though the mucus may turn white, green, or yellow for a few days before it turns clear again.
The cause of congestion could instead be an allergy, which would require a doctor visit and possibly an allergy test. Congestion can even happen if a piece of food or another object gets lodged in your child’s nose. This, too, needs a visit to the emergency room or your pediatrician. Don’t try to remove anything but mucus from your baby’s nose on your own.
Sometimes, congestion may be a sign of a more serious problem. A stuffy nose due to a cold can often be treated with saline drops, time, and some TLC. If there are other symptoms, especially a fever and thick, yellow mucus, call your pediatrician as soon as possible.
One of the most effective ways to treat a stuffy nose is with saline. Saline is basically just salt water. A rinse can help break up congestion and remove bacteria and parts of the virus from the nose. You can buy an over-the-counter saline nasal spray, or you can mix some up yourself. Simply mix 1/4 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda in 8 ounces of warm water.
Put a few drops of saline into your baby’s nose. Then use a bulb syringe to clear out the mucus. Here is how to use the bulb syringe properly:
- Squeeze the syringe first.
- Place the tip of the syringe very gently into your baby’s nostril.
- Release the bulb slowly, allowing it to collect the mucus.
- Wash the bulb with soap and water after each use.
If your child is older than about 6 months, he will be less than ecstatic when you use the bulb syringe. If he resists, you can leave that step out. The saline will thin out the mucus, and you can leave it to clear out on its own.
If you’re unsure about using the classic bulb syringe, there are other options with regards to snotsuckers. There are excellent ones that you can operate using your breath. Parents love this strategy because it gives them more control, and it has more power. Kids hate this option because the increase in control and power will also lead to an increase in feeling everything. It’s all down to personal preference. Both options will work fine.
One thing that will help your baby’s sinuses and congestion is the addition of moisture into the air. When the air is too dry, the mucus in the nose and sinuses won’t flow properly. It is therefore extremely helpful to use a vaporizer to add cool mist to the air, to help get the moisture back into your baby’s sinuses.
When using a humidifier, it is very important that you keep it very clean. Failure to do so will lead to the collection of mold inside of the humidifier itself, which can make your baby very sick.
It is also possible to use a vaporizer to help clear your baby’s sinuses. The difference between humidifiers and vaporizers is that a humidifier sprays cold mist into the room. Vaporizers make steam. However, vaporizers can lead to some serious hazards, especially with young children. Since the vaporizers use heat, it’s possible that your baby will be scalded by just standing in front of it, or by touching the hot water inside. This is why some parents prefer humidifiers. The cold mist from the humdifiers accomplishes the same goal as the hot steam from the vaporizer.
Whichever you choose to utilize, there are some important things to remember when dealing with both humidifiers and vaporizers. Here is a short list:
- Stabilize – It is important to keep the humidifier or vaporizer on a high, flat surface, far out of the reach of the curious little one.
- Cords – To avoid tripping accidents, always unplug the humidifier or vaporizer when it is not in use. That way, it can’t be tripped over or knocked down accidentally by your little one or you.
- Clean the Humidifier – As mentioned above, it is extremely important to keep the humidifier clean to avoid mold buildup inside. Mold will make your baby’s congestion worse, both in their sinuses and in their lungs.
- Beware Too Much Moisture – Too much moisture in the air is a problem that will mess with everything in the affected room. Avoid this by making sure there isn’t too much moisture, which would be indicated by wet surfaces or condensation on the windows.
It’s possible, especially if the mucus is thick, that it can dry and cluster around your baby’s nose. This is extremely uncomfortable and can make breathing even more difficult. To fix this issue, wet a cotton swab in warm water and gently use it to clean the affected area. Your baby will thank you for this, in their own baby way.
Be extremely careful when cleaning your baby’s nose with a cotton swab. Be sure not to stick the swab far into their nose. This may cause damage. Simply clean the outside, and a little bit inside the nose.
There are few things as congestion-relieving as steam from a shower or a tub. This is no different for your baby. The steam, like in the vaporizer, will help loosen the mucus in your baby’s nose, making it much easier for her to breathe. There are a couple of ways to complete this task.
Firstly, you can run an extremely hot shower and let it create steam for several minutes. Then, sit in the steamy room with your baby, letting the steam do all the work. However, do not let the hot water from the shower touch your baby’s skin. It will burn.
The second battle plan could be you just running your baby’s bath per usual. There might be less steam, but it will still help her sinuses and congestion. Remember to never leave your baby in the bath alone.
One of the easiest and most therapeutic ways to relieve a baby’s congestion is to gently tap his back. The tapping will help loosen the mucus in his chest and nose, allowing him to cough it up easier.
You can do this safely in a few different ways. You lay your baby across your knees, and gently pat him on the back with a cupped hand. Or, you can have him sitting in your lap, leaning forward about 30 degrees.
However you may choose to have him set up to pat his back, make sure you are always extremely careful. Never pat too hard. Hitting hard won’t loosen the mucus any faster. It will just hurt your baby. Be patient, and always be gentle.
Staying hydrated keeps mucus thin. If your little one has trouble nursing or doesn’t want to take a bottle, use a combination of saline drops and a nasal aspirator before each feeding to help clear congestion, and encourage him to drink as much as possible. However, don’t force it. Even a few sips throughout the day will help immensely.
Keeping your baby’s head higher than normal can help drain some of the congestion out of his nose. Hold your baby, or wear him. You can also let him nap in his car seat or carrier, as long as you keep an eye on him.
Never elevate your baby’s mattress if he is younger than 2. It is important to keep objects out of a baby’s crib to avoid Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). A spare blanket or pillow in the crib will increase the risk of suffocation.
Home Air Quality
It is always best to have good air quality in your home. Poor air quality can lead to more infections, especially in a baby. To avoid bad air quality, here are a few things you can do.
- Don’t smoke in the house
- Keep your baby away from wood smoke
- Limit your baby’s exposure to perfume
- Make sure there is minimum dust in the house.
- Keep your baby (and yourself) out of areas where there may be car exhaust
Taking these important steps can greatly reduce your child’s risk of illness.
Know When It’s Serious
Being a parent is generally scary. It’s scary when your baby learns to crawl, because they can get hurt easier. It’s scary when they start putting everything in their mouths, because everything is suddenly a choking hazard. It’s important for you to remain calm, no matter what the circumstance may be. Most young babies struggle with congestion, and chances are, your child’s stuffy nose and croupy cough are nothing more than typical. Not every stuffy nose needs a doctor.
However, you should always be on the lookout for symptoms that are obviously more serious than the common baby cold.
Get urgent care if your baby isn’t wetting enough diapers (a sign of dehydration and undereating), or if they start vomiting or running a fever, especially if they are under 3 months old.
Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room if your baby has signs of severe breathing trouble, such as:
- panicked look
- grunting or moaning at the end of each breath
- flaring nostrils
- ribs pulling in on each breath
- breathing too hard or fast to be able to feed
- blue tint to the skin, especially around lips and nails.
Contact your pediatrician if your child develops a fever of 100.4 degrees F or more in connection with the congestion. Also contact your pediatrician if your child develops a barking cough, if he has trouble eating or drinking or if the symptoms of congestion last for more than 10 days.
What Not to Do
Many people may be tempted to give their baby cough medicine or Benadryl to ease the symptoms of a cold. However, this is not a good idea.
While it can be tempting to use Benadryl for off-label uses such as helping your baby rest, using it on your little one is likely too risky unless your doctor advises it. This is because your child can have an adverse response to the medication. Side effects from Benadryl include:
- dry mouth
- rapid heart rate
- stomach upset
It is possible that some children can have an opposite reaction to the medication. This includes unintended responses, such as heightened energy. If you were hoping to use it for its sleep-inducing effects, there’s a chance it could do exactly the opposite.
Also, Benadryl is largely untested on children younger than age 2. This means that there aren’t standard dosages to recommend. The effects on infants can vary. For some little ones, the medication may be especially sedating or sleep-inducing. This could be concerning as a parent.
Some parents may try to give Benadryl for colds. According to St. Louis Children’s Hospital, Benadryl isn’t advised for colds for those under age 4. Evidence suggests these cold medicines don’t really help, and they have a small risk of serious side effects. Between 1969 and 2006, there were reports that 60 young children died from decongestants or antihistamines.
Circumstances are different for every infant. If your child’s doctor does recommend using Benadryl for travel or otherwise on your baby, you may want to try a trial run at home first to see how your child responds. This way, if your child does have an allergic reaction or unexpected response, you can quickly seek emergency medical treatment. That’s much better than needing help thousands of feet in the air.
Remember also that there are different formulations for Benadryl, including children’s formulations and adult ones. Always discuss with your child’s pediatrician the formulation you are considering using as well as the delivery route. For example, you should use the dropper that comes with the children’s Benadryl packaging instead of another measuring method or spoon to ensure the most accurate measurement.
Are there any cures for viruses? Unfortunately, there are no cures for common viruses. If your baby has a mild virus, you’ll have to get through it with tender loving care. Keep your baby comfortable at home and stick to their routine, offering frequent feedings and making sure they sleep.
Can I use a vapor rub on my baby? Vapor rubs (often containing menthol, eucalyptus, or camphor) are proven to be dangerous for children younger than 2 years old. Remember that increased mucus production is the body’s way of clearing out the virus, and it’s not a problem unless it’s severely affecting your baby’s ability to eat or breathe.
Can I rub my baby’s face to help with the congestion? Rubbing your baby’s face and head is a very good way to help them find some relief. Gently rub the bridge of the nose, eyebrows, cheekbones, hairline, and bottom of the head. Your touch can be soothing if your baby is congested and fussy.