Why Is My Baby Wheezing?

Medically reviewed by Karen Richardson Gill, MD, FAAP on March 20, 2017Written by Kathryn Watson on March 20, 2017

About wheezing

When your baby is wheezing, they might take tiny breaths accompanied by a whistling sound. Because of a baby’s small airways, many things can cause them to make a wheezing sound when they breathe. Some are quite common, while others are cause for concern.

Normal breathing sounds for an infant can vary. When your baby is sleeping, they may take slower, deeper breaths than when they are awake and alert. Wheezing is not the same as heavy breathing. Occasional grunts or sighs are also not the same as wheezing.

Wheezing usually happens during an exhalation. It happens when something blocks or narrows the lower airway passages in the lungs. Tiny bits of dried mucus can create a brief whistling noise when your baby breathes, for example. Though many things can make your baby sound like they’re wheezing, it is often hard to tell true wheezing without a stethoscope.

A consistent whistle-like noise, or any breaths accompanied by a rattling sound, is reason to pay close attention and see if something more is going on.

Possible causes of baby wheezing

Allergies

Allergies can cause your baby’s body to create extra phlegm. Since your baby can’t blow their nose or clear their throat, this phlegm stays in their narrow nasal passages. If your baby has been exposed to an air pollutant or tried a new food, allergies might be what’s causing them to make a wheezing sound. It may not be true wheezing if the phlegm is only in the nose or throat and not the lungs. Further, allergies are uncommon in babies who are younger than one year.

Bronchiolitis

Bronchiolitis is a lower respiratory infection your baby might have. It’s especially common in infants during the winter months. Bronchiolitis is typically caused by a virus. It’s when bronchioles in the lungs are inflamed. Congestion also occurs. If your baby has bronchiolitis, they might develop a cough.

It takes some time for the wheezing caused by bronchiolitis to go away. Most children get better at home. In a small percentage of cases, babies need to be hospitalized.

Asthma

Sometimes baby wheezing is an indicator of asthma. This is more likely if a child’s parents smoke or have a history of asthma themselves, or if the baby’s mother smoked when she was pregnant. One incidence of wheezing doesn’t mean your baby has asthma. But if your baby has continual wheezing episodes, your pediatrician may run some diagnostic tests. They may also recommend asthma medication to see if your baby’s condition improves.

Other causes

In rarer cases, a baby’s wheezing sounds might indicate the presence of a chronic or congenital disease, such as cystic fibrosis. It might also indicate pneumonia or pertussis. If there is a serious illness at play, your baby will have other symptoms, too. Remember that any fever greater than 100.4°F is cause for a pediatrician visit (or at least a call) when your child is younger than six months.

Treating baby wheezing

The treatment for your baby’s wheezing will depend on the cause. If this is the first time your baby has wheezing, your doctor might allow you to try treating the symptoms at home before they prescribe medication. You can try the following at-home remedies.

Humidifier

The humidifier will put moisture into the air. Hydrating the air will help loosen any congestion that is causing your baby to wheeze.

Bulb syringe

If the congestion continues, a bulb syringe device might help suck some of the mucus out of the upper airway. Remember that your baby’s nasal passages and airways to the lungs are still developing. Be gentle. Always use a bulb syringe carefully, and make sure that it has been completely sanitized between uses.

Read more: How to clear your baby’s nose with a bulb syringe »

Hydration

If your baby is wheezing due to an infection, it’s important to keep them hydrated. Make sure that you give them plenty of liquids. Hydration will help loosen mucus and clear the nasal passages.

Nebulizer

Your baby may also be prescribed the use of a nebulizer. Your doctor may recommend you use saline with it. A medication called albuterol is sometimes used, mixed with saline, to open up the airways. Albuterol mostly helps wheezing caused by asthma. It likely won’t decrease wheezing from other causes.

Learn more: What is a nebulizer? »

Medication

There are not many cold or cough medications that can be given safely to a baby. Administering acetaminophen or other products designed to break an infant’s fever will not help a cough or wheeze. Do not give an infant honey to try to coat their throat and soothe the wheeze. It carries a risk of infant botulism.

If you think your baby needs medical treatment, the best thing to do is talk to your pediatrician.

When to see a doctor

If you think that your baby is wheezing, take them to the pediatrician as soon as you can. A proper diagnosis is necessary to figure out treatment to help your child.

Some symptoms cannot wait to be addressed. If your child’s breathing is labored, or if their skin is taking a bluish tint, seek medical attention immediately. It could indicate a severe allergic reaction or serious medical condition. You should also call a doctor right away if your baby has:

  • rattling in the chest
  • extreme fits of coughing
  • a sustained high fever
  • dehydration

In these cases, a doctor can give your baby the care they need.

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