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.
Symptoms of baby chest congestion include:
Potential causes of baby chest congestion include:
- premature birth
- transient tachypnea (in the first day or two after birth only)
- respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
- cystic fibrosis
A baby with nasal congestion may have the following symptoms:
- thick nasal mucus
- discolored nasal mucus
- snoring or noisy breathing while asleep
- trouble eating, as nasal congestion makes it difficult to breathe while they suck
Potential causes of baby nasal congestion include:
- viruses, including colds
- dry air
- poor air quality
- deviated septum, a misalignment of the cartilage that separates the two nostrils
You can tell if your baby is getting enough food by how many wet diapers they make every day. It’s very important that newborns get enough hydration and calories. Young infants should wet a diaper at least every six hours. If they are ill or not feeding well, they may be dehydrated and need to see a doctor right away.
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.
A baby who can sit may enjoy taking a warm bath. The playtime will distract from their discomfort and the warm water can help clear nasal congestion.
Humidifier and steam
Run a humidifier in your baby’s room while they sleep to help loosen mucus. Cool mist is safest because there aren’t any hot parts on the machine. If you don’t have a humidifier, run a hot shower and sit in the steamy bathroom for a few minutes multiple times per day.
Nasal saline drops
Ask your doctor which brand of saline they recommend. Putting one or two drops of saline in the nose can help loosen mucus. Apply drops with a nasal syringe (bulb) for really thick mucus. It may be helpful to try this just before a feeding.
Breast milk in the nose
Some people feel that putting breast milk in a baby’s nose works just as well as saline drops to soften mucus. Carefully put a little milk right into your baby’s nose while feeding. When you sit them up after eating, it’s likely the mucus will slide right out. Do not use this technique if it interferes with your baby feeding.
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.
Home air quality
Avoid smoking near your baby; use unscented candles; keep pet dander down by vacuuming frequently; and follow label instructions to make sure you replace your home air filter as often as needed.
Do not use medication or vapor rub
Most cold medications are not safe or effective for babies. And 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.
If a baby’s congestion is extreme, they may have a condition that requires extra oxygen, antibiotics, or other medical treatments. Doctors may use a chest radiograph to diagnose the issue.
Babies with congestion at night may wake up more often, have increased coughing, and become very irritable.
Being horizontal and being tired make it harder for babies to handle congestion.
Treat night congestion the same as you would in the daytime. It’s important that you stay calm in order to keep your baby calm.
Do not prop your baby on a pillow or put their mattress on an incline. Doing so increases the risk of SIDS and suffocation. If you want to hold your baby upright while they sleep, you need to stay awake and take turns with your partner.
Congestion is more likely among newborns living in dry or high-altitude climates, and those who were:
- exposed to irritants, like cigarette smoke, dust, or perfume
- born prematurely
- born by cesarean delivery
- born to mothers with diabetes
- born to mothers with a sexually transmitted infection (STI)
- diagnosed with Down syndrome
Hopefully, your child’s congestion will be short-lived and leave their immune system stronger than it was before. However, see your doctor if things don’t get better after a couple of days.
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 skin especially around lips and nails.
Congestion is a common condition in babies. A number of environmental and genetic factors can cause congestion. You can usually treat it at home. See a doctor immediately if your baby becomes dehydrated or has any trouble breathing.