While the sniffles and snuffles that go along with congestion aren’t a medical emergency the first time you hear them from your own baby, it can sure feel like it.
Especially if your baby sounds congested but you don’t see any boogers or mucus in their nose, it may seem like a problem without a solution.
So what’s going on with your baby and how do you help them?
Healthy babies can often sound congested simply because they’re tiny new people with baby-sized systems, including miniature nasal passages. Just like those itty-bitty fingers and toes, their nostrils and airways are extra small.
It doesn’t take much for these teeny pathways to become affected by minor dryness or by just a bit of clear mucus. This may simply be a normal part of their growth and development.
But there are things that can affect the amount of congestion they have, and knowing what those are may help you relieve some of their sniffles with home treatments — or signal when you should call the doctor.
Here are some factors that increase the chances of chances of congestion:
- Preemie babies. The air passages of preemies are even smaller than those of your average newborn. This may make slightly noisy breathing even more likely.
- Air irritants. Think tobacco or cooking smoke, heavy perfumes, room aromatherapy diffusers, or fumes from household cleaning products, paint, or varnish. These can irritate your baby’s nasal passages.
- Dry air. Low humidity can dry out and irritate nasal passages. This can be a result of using your home’s heating system or simply living in an arid climate.
- Weather changes. Waving goodbye to summer heat may sound like fun, but when the drop in temperature brings low humidity and dry air, your baby is more likely to sound congested.
What about illness?
Not all congestion is part and parcel of nasal passages that need to grow up. Sometimes, congestion can be related to illness and may even develop deeper in your baby’s chest.
This congestion can be due to illness such as:
Congestion that affects your baby’s breathing or moves into baby’s lungs may signal a more complex condition such as:
- cystic fibrosis (typically identified during newborn screenings.)
Several things can signal that your baby has congested nasal passages. Here’s what to look out for:
- sniffles and snuffles
- slightly blocked or runny nose
- noisy breathing
- snoring when asleep
- touch of difficulty when feeding
- light coughing
With these light symptoms you, at least, can breathe easy. Look for other signs that may indicate illness, like fever or vomiting, to determine whether to call the doctor.
If your baby has any of the following symptoms, you’ve got some reason for concern:
- The sniffling turns into labored breathing.
- You can hear wheezing that makes it sound like each breath is an effort.
- Your baby’s nostrils flare in and out every time they breathe.
- Your baby’s chest retracts with each breath.
If your baby is demonstrating any of these symptoms, call the doctor right away.
Sometimes your baby may sound congested, but, try as you may, you can’t see much mucus. What gives? The first step is to look for any other signs of illness.
- Does your baby have a fever?
- Is your baby listless?
- Have your baby’s diapers been sufficiently wet and frequent?
- Does your baby refuse to breastfeed or reject their bottle?
- Does their congestion interfere with their sleep?
If you see any of these symptoms, talk with your doctor to determine the best treatments to help your baby.
On the other hand, if your baby seems generally content and is eating, sleeping, and dirtying diapers regularly, you may not need to do anything but wait for the congestion to pass. In some cases doing too much (like frequent use of a nasal aspirator) can irritate the nose further.
If you’re looking for a way to help a fussy congested baby, you may want to start with some of the home remedies below.
Home remedies to ease congestion
You may not see any mucus in your baby’s nose, but that doesn’t mean it might not be there. Since your baby spends so much time lying on their back, mucus can easily collect in the back of their nose or throat, causing the sniffling you don’t want to hear.
These home remedies may ease congestion:
- Warm baths. A calming bath in warm water can help clear congestion.
- Saline drops. A few saline drops in each nostril can help to loosen and thin the mucus. Thank your lucky stars if your baby sneezes and releases the mucus independently.
- Nasal bulb syringes or nasal aspirators. If your baby isn’t sneezing on their own to clean things out you can clear away the excess mucus mechanically by using a bulb syringe or nasal aspirator.
- Cool mist humidifier. A humidifier can prevent dry air from irritating your baby’s nasal passages.
- Positioning. Hold or wear your baby, or put your baby in the swing when they’re awake so they’re spending less time flat on their back. Do not place anything in the crib with your baby to position them as that can increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
- Facial massage. Use your thumb to gently massage the nasal bridge, forehead, temples, and cheekbones. This may help drain the nasal passages.
- Clean air. Clear away dust, allergens, and pollutants. Clean air and clean surfaces can reduce your baby’s exposure to irritants. Throw open your windows and go on a housecleaning spree.
While some people may recommend vapor rub, at least one study suggests that it’s not the best choice for babies and should be avoided.
The same goes for the various cold medications that are available over the counter — stick to the home remedies listed above or consult your doctor about other treatment options.
While you’ll want to keep an eye out to ensure that nothing else is in the wings, usually a congested nose in your baby is simply part of their growth process. As they get a bit bigger it’s likely to simply resolve itself.
If you’re concerned, check with your baby’s pediatrician and discuss whether further treatment is needed.