When you're a new parent, it can feel completely overwhelming to try to figure out when your baby is acting like a normal baby, and when something is wrong.
Every last sniffle, sound, and sneeze can make you stop and wonder if something is wrong with your baby. Is the baby cold? Do they have a cold? Did that person with a cold sneeze on my baby and that's why they’re sneezing? Is there such a thing as too many sneezes?
Worry not, fellow parents of a newborn who sneezes: We'll get to the bottom of this, I promise.
What Causes the Sneezing?
There are quite a few reasons why your newborn might be sneezing a lot.
First, you should know that sneezing is absolutely a good thing to see your newborn doing. It means that their nervous system is working correctly, because sneezing is actually a reflex controlled by the nervous system. The Cleveland Clinic reassures nervous parents everywhere that it's completely common for newborns to sneeze a lot, along with spit up, yawn, gurgle, hiccup, and burp.
Sneezing in infants is a reflex just like it is with adults, which occurs when the nasal passages are irritated. Unlike a lot of other reflexes like the startle reflex or the Moro reflex, the sneezing reflex is one that sticks around as the baby grows and into adulthood. Everyone needs to sneeze every now and then, right?
Primarily, newborns sneeze a lot because they have to. Newborns have smaller nasal passages than adults and may have to literally clear their noses more often than adults do, since they can get clogged more easily. They sneeze to get rid of anything from breast milk to mucus, to smoke, to dust bunnies in the air. Just think of how irritated a nasal passage might get when you spend most of your time leaning back and drinking milk. You can help your baby by never smoking around him or her.
Newborns also breathe through their mouths as part of their development, which can sometimes contribute to the sneezing since they are still adjusting to breathing through the nose.
More Than Just a Sneeze
That being said, you may find it interesting that for newborn babies, sneezing can actually be more than just sneezing. If your newborn is sneezing a lot, it doesn't necessarily mean they’re coming down with a cold.
Instead, babies use sneezing as a natural defense system against the billions of germs that they are greeted with during their presentation to the world. Think of how hard their little immune systems must have to work in meeting great aunt Mildred and the neighbors and that over-zealous grandma at the grocery store.
That's a lot of germs to be introduced in a very short span of time. So sneezing is just one way that newborns can try to protect themselves in our germy world. The sneezing clears out germs and particles that might be trying to infiltrate the baby's system through the nasal passages before they can get inside and make your baby sick.
One study also suggested that sneezing may be a sign that your infant is seeing properly. In this rather old study — it was conducted in 1986 — researchers passed a bicycle bell in front of the baby's vision field, both horizontally and vertically. Many of the babies sneezed as soon as the bell was presented in front of their eyes, leading the study's authors to conclude that the sneeze was "an early indicator of visual sensitivity."
Sneezing as a Sign of Sickness
Unfortunately, sneezing isn't always just a normal sign of a healthy newborn.
In some situations, excessive sneezing in newborns can be a sign of a condition called neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). This occurs when a mother has abused addictive opiate drugs during her pregnancy. Symptoms of the syndrome, in addition to the sneezing, can include nasal stuffiness, unsustained suck, tremor, and abnormal nipple latch.
If a baby has NAS, they are essentially experiencing withdrawal syndromes from the drug or drugs that the mother used during her pregnancy. Some of the most commonly abused substances include alcohol, heroin, and methadone. One of the symptoms of heroin withdrawal, for example, is a baby sneezing more than five times at once. Doctors are taught to assess signs of NAS if a baby is sneezing three to four times at once within a 30-minute timespan.
Of course, newborns can also simply get sick. Frequent sneezing in a newborn could be a symptom of an infection. If your newborn is sneezing frequently and has other symptoms, like a cough, trouble breathing, is refusing feedings, or appears more tired than usual, or is running a fever at or above 100.4 degrees, you should get your newborn checked out by your doctor right away.