A stuffy nose is miserable for anyone, but it can be especially bad for a baby. Nasal congestion can make it hard for infants to eat and sleep, which makes for one unhappy baby.

Learn more about your baby’s stuffy nose, as well as remedies that can help.

What is nasal congestion?

Nasal congestion is another term for a stuffy nose. When blood vessels and tissues in and around the nasal passages become swollen with excess fluid, they create a “stuffy” or plugged sensation. Sometimes this congestion is accompanied by nasal discharge.

In babies, a stuffy nose can make it difficult to sleep comfortably. Babies should always sleep on their backs. But nasal congestion can hinder their ability to breathe through their nostrils, leading to fitful sleeping.

Babies with congestion may also have difficulty breast-feeding or taking milk or formula from a bottle. Having a stuffy nose means they’re unable to breathe and suck at the same time.

What causes nasal congestion?

Anything that irritates or inflames tissues in the nose can result in a stuffy nose. Infections like a cold or the flu, allergies, and other irritants can all be culprits.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, it’s normal for children to have more upper respiratory infections than any other illness. Before age 2, most children will have between eight and 10 colds. They may have more if they’re in day care or if there are older siblings in school bringing germs home.

Remedies for your baby’s stuffy nose

While there are cough and cold medicines available that promise to alleviate congestion, they should never be given to infants and children under 2 years of age. These medicines can have potentially life-threatening side effects for babies and toddlers.

Try these remedies for temporarily relieving your baby’s congestion so they can sleep and nurse comfortably.

1. Saline drops

Saline nose drops are a mild saltwater solution available over the counter. They’re designed to loosen congestion inside the nasal passages. Don’t use medicated nose drops. The pharmacist or your pediatrician can recommend plain saline nose drops suitable for your baby.

How to use saline drops

  1. If you’re using nasal drops, lay your baby on a flat surface. Avoid touching the surface of the dropper to your baby’s nostrils.
  2. Place two drops in each nostril about 20 minutes before it’s time for your baby to nurse or take a bottle.
  3. Follow immediately with suction.

2. Suction

After using saline drops or spray, use a rubber suction bulb or nasal aspirator to remove mucus.

How to use a suction bulb

  1. Begin with a sanitized rubber suction bulb.
  2. Squeeze the bulb end first, then gently slip the rubber tip into one of your baby’s nostrils.
  3. Slowly release the bulb, and expel the contents into a tissue to be discarded. The suction generated will help pull clogged mucus out.

This is most effective on babies younger than 6 months. As they get bigger, many babies begin to resist the suction bulb.

How to use a nasal aspirator

  1. Place the large tube against your baby’s nostril to create a seal.
  2. Use the mouthpiece to create suction.
  3. Move the tube in a circular motion against your baby’s nostril. Disposable filters will prevent any transfer of bacteria.

3. Elevated surface

Tuck a pillow beneath your baby’s crib springs and mattress to elevate the mattress slightly on one end. Putting your baby down to sleep on a slight incline puts gravity on your side. This can help the mucus drain better so the nasal passages aren’t completely clogged.

You can also use an infant car seat as a temporary sleep spot, or use a baby carrier or sling to keep them comfortably upright or angled for better drainage.

4. Steam

Run a hot shower and close the door to contain the steam. Sit with your baby in the steamy room for 10 to 15 minutes. The steam will help loosen congestion.

5. Cool-mist humidifier

Use a vaporizer or cool-mist humidifier in your baby’s room. It will help nasal congestion liquefy, which will make them more comfortable.

How to use a cool-mist humidifier

  1. Place the humidifier close enough to your baby’s crib to be effective, but out of arm’s reach.
  2. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to keep the humidifier thoroughly clean to prevent mold or bacterial growth.
  3. Avoid hot-water vaporizers, which have been associated with scalds and serious burns.

6. Liquids

Try to offer breast milk or formula frequently to keep your baby well-hydrated. This can help thin congestion.

Next steps

If you’re worried that your baby’s nasal congestion is affecting their ability to breathe, nurse, or take a bottle, speak with your pediatrician. They will be able to advise you on whether your baby needs to be seen, or if it’s a good idea to try these remedies at home.