It can be perfectly normal for otherwise healthy babies to go through periods where they sound congested and stuffed up, but when is a baby’s stuffy nose something to worry about? While seeking professional medical advice from a doctor or nurse should always be your first line of defense, knowing what commonly causes baby congestion and learning some ways to ease baby’s suffering can make you both feel better quickly.
Common reasons baby sounds congested and how to help
Baby sounds congested? Here are five potential causes and what to do about them.
1. Babies have very small nasal passages and may only sound congested
“Congestion in babies is caused either by swelling of the nasal passages, so air can’t get through, or by the nasal passages being filled up with mucus,” says Dr. Roy Benaroch, a pediatrician and author of “Solving Health and Behavioral Problems from Birth through Preschool.” “Infant noses are so small to begin with, so even a little swelling or mucus can cause congestion.”
Kristina Duda, a registered nurse and cold and flu expert agrees. “Sometimes babies just sound congested when there really isn’t anything to worry about,” she says.
What you can do: For typical congestion caused solely by infant anatomy, Duda says, “Keeping babies’ noses clear with a bulb syringe can be a good idea. If baby is eating OK and doesn’t seem to be too bothered by their congestion, then there shouldn’t be too much to worry about.”
2. Babies can’t blow their noses and need a little help
“Older children and adults can easily clear mucus out of their noses by blowing them,” says Benaroch. “Little babies can’t do that, so they tend to stay congested.”
What you can do: To clear out baby noses safely and easily, both Benaroch and Duda suggest the NoseFrida baby nostril aspirator because it works well and is safe to use for babies. Generally, it does the same thing as a bulb syringe by clearing out the mucus in their noses, but it’s easier to clean than typical syringes. Parents suck the mucus out of their babies’ noses using the nostril aspirator (don’t worry, there’s a hygiene filter).
Where to buy: NoseFrida The Snotsucker ($18, Frida)
3. Common irritants like dust, perfumes and smoke can cause baby congestion
Low air quality can really wreak havoc on a baby’s stuffy nose. “Irritants like warm dry air, tobacco or cooking smoke or other environmental irritants in the air can cause baby congestion,” says Benaroch.
What you can do: Duda suggests that parents eliminate any environmental factors and “invest in a cool mist humidifier for baby’s room.”
4. Baby could have the common cold virus
“Most of the time, baby congestion isn’t really painful for them, but it can affect their sleeping, especially if they get the common cold virus,” says Duda.
What you can do: If baby sounds congested when breathing and has a stuffy nose at night, Duda suggests elevating their head while they sleep. “Putting them in their baby car seat or even swing so they are in an upright, elevated position can help drain some of that mucus,” she says. (Keep in mind, though: Unless baby is in a moving car, it’s not recommended they sleep in a car seat.)
Still have a baby with a stuffed up nose on your hands? “Try saline drops for babies’ noses that help clear out some of that mucus, as well,” says Duda.
5. Baby could have caught Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) and need medical treatment
Sometimes a stuffy nose can mean something more than infant congestion. Keep an eye out for these clear warning signs, says Duda: “If babies are more irritable than normal, they just are not feeding very well, they are lethargic, they don’t want to smile and play as usual or they are sleeping more than normal — these kinds of signs could signal a more serious illness, such as RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, in babies.”
RSV is one of the most common causes of respiratory illnesses in babies and is signaled by a lot of mucus that doesn’t go away.
“RSV seems to be more common in premature infants, so parents should be aware of that,” Duda says. “It occurs when the common cold virus starts to attack their lungs and needs medical intervention to treat.”
What you can do: If you think your baby might have RSV, call the pediatrician immediately.
Signs baby’s congestion needs immediate medical care
Sometimes infant congestion can impair a baby’s breathing, which Duda says is a clear signal to take your little one to the doctor — no matter the cause. “If babies are coughing a lot, and there is no relief, then they should really be seen by a doctor,” she says.
Duda encourages parents to watch out for nasal flaring. “If babies’ nostrils are flaring in and out every time they breathe, and they have retraction around the ribs, this means that they are working too hard to breathe and need immediate medical attention,” she says. “If they are grunting with every breath, this is also a serious concern, and parents should seek out immediate medical attention for their babies.”
If you’re ever concerned about your baby’s breathing, make an appointment with your pediatrician.