5 Tips for Dealing with Nasal Congestion in Babies

If your baby has a stuffy nose, it can be awful listening to her struggle to breathe. On top of that, you may feel a bit helpless because your baby doesn’t know how to blow her nose yet! What can you do to offer relief?

First, be sure to check out all of your child’s symptoms. Keep in mind that when your baby is breathing through the nose—even if it’s slightly stuffy—it may seem more congested than it really is. That’s because a baby’s nasal passages are relatively small.

Simple, Practical Tips

If you determine that you baby indeed has a cold (or other congestive issue), it’s important to do what you can to help relieve it, as the stuffiness can affect your child’s ability to suckle or to swallow liquid. Here are tips for babies older than four months:

1. Keep Baby’s Head Raised

Be sure your child’s head is lifted at about a 30-degree angle to allow the mucus to drain. Try folding a blanket and putting it under the crib’s mattress at the head of the bed/crib. (Be sure the angle of the mattress is not so high that your baby rolls down.)
For acute symptoms and to ease drainage, you can also put your child in a car seat which provides an angled position or hold her upright against your chest while standing or seated. Either of these methods keeps the baby’s head upright, allowing the mucus to flow downward.

2. Use a Nasal Aspirator

  • Put ¼ teaspoon of salt in a warm cup of sterilized water
  • Using an eye dropper, insert a few drops of this saline water into each nostril
  • Draw out the mucus from each nostril with a medical rubber bulb syringe (aspirator)

Some moms swear by the nasal aspirator called the “Nose Frida.” Be careful when using an aspirator so that it does not irritate the nasal passages. You can try to prevent this by not putting the syringe too deeply into the nostril. The tip doesn’t need to go too far into the nostril and it should be pointed toward the ear—not “up the nose” toward the baby’s eyes. Make sure that you keep the nasal aspirator clean and dry, so that you don't introduce new germs (bacteria or fungi) to baby's nasal passages.

3. Try Warmth or Steam

Some pediatricians recommend a warm bath or steamy bathroom to help relieve stuffiness:

  • Turn on the shower and allow steam to fill the bathroom. Then take the baby in the steamy room and let him or her breathe in the warm moisture. This can also help relieve chest congestion and a cough.
  • Give your baby a warm, soothing bath. You may want to use a special bath soap (e.g., Johnson’s Soothing Vapor Bath—in the light green bottle), but be aware that special soaps with menthol or herbal vapors may trigger an asthma attack in babies who have this condition.
  • As long as baby doesn't have asthma, you can put Olbas oil (a Swiss aromatherapy oil with herbal vapors) on a tissue and fan it in front of the baby for a little while, or add a few drops in a bowl of hot water nearby—safely out of reach.
  • Dab a little Vicks VapoRub on your child’s chest at bedtime, unless your child has asthma or any sensitivity to the vapors. (A Penn State study found this treatment could be effective in easing congestion to help kids sleep.)

4. Keep Baby Hydrated and the Air Moist

Give your baby enough sterilized water and formula or breast milk—if you’re nursing. Use a humidifier in baby’s room because moisture in the air helps relieve breathing difficulties. (Be certain to keep the humidifier clean, though, so it doesn’t become a moldy health hazard instead!)

5. Wipe the Nose with a Soft, Warm Cloth.

Use a wet, warm cloth (not a sopping-wet one—but a squeezed-out washcloth) to gently wipe around your baby’s nose. Then have him or her breathe some of the warmth from the cloth for a few seconds at a time.

What You Should Know

Nasal congestion can be triggered by a number of things:

  • Viral infections (like the common cold)
  • Adenoiditis/Sinusitis (secondary bacterial infections)
  • Allergies (especially for babies over age 2)
  • Acid reflux

Babies are especially vulnerable to viruses, and it may seem that there’s only a short break between wellness and the next bout of sniffles. In fact, youngsters can have as many as a dozen viruses/colds in a year.

Signs to Watch for

If you're not sure when to call the doctor, keep on the lookout for red flags such as:

  • Trouble with feeding / nursing
  • Fever
  • Discolored nasal discharge, present for about 2 weeks
  • Inability to sleep
  • Stuffiness continues more than 6 weeks
  • If the baby with the congestion is younger than 3 months old
  • Signs of respiratory distress (rapid movement of the chest muscles or breathing quickly with nostrils flaring)

Some symptoms need a pediatrician’s attention right away. Find out if your baby has any of the following:

  • Your baby’s congestion seems to be more than just routine sniffles and he or she looks sick.
  • The congestion is getting heavier and lasts more than 10 days.
  • Mucus is greenish and your baby seems to be in pain or has a fever. These could be signs of an infection.
  • Blood appears in the mucus.
  • Fever is getting higher, and it continues for more than a few days.

If your baby doesn’t have any of these signs, and you feel confident about his or her breathing pattern, then there’s usually no need to be overly concerned.

Things to Think Twice about

When your baby is miserable with congestion, it’s understandable that you might consider giving medication to relieve any discomfort. However, it’s usually better to avoid giving cold medications to very young babies. In fact, it’s best to check first with your pediatrician before giving your baby or young child any over-the-counter medication.

Did you know that nasal decongestants actually can rev up a baby instead of helping him or her to rest? Most physicians hesitate to give such medications to kids below 1-year-old. Think twice before dispensing medication—because you may end up with a sniffly, wide-awake baby instead of a sleeping one!

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