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How to help your sick baby breathe more easily at night

By Cradlewise Staff

We all know that no one in the house sleeps when your baby is congested. This might leave you feeling helpless and exhausted, monitoring their every move in the wee hours of the night instead of getting some shut-eye. (We’ve all been there, keeping watch on the floor next to their crib!) 

Since babies have smaller airways that have a tougher time clearing mucus, congestion is one of the most common medical ailments they face in the initial years. But it is more than okay to call the doc and check if you feel that something is not right.

Not only are we currently in prime cold and flu season, but the ongoing pandemic can also make it particularly stressful to treat and care for little ones. It becomes all the more challenging to determine what is causing the congestion with so many symptoms overlapping. 

Dr. Rebekah Diamond (MD), author of the upcoming book Parent Like A Pediatrician, says, “It’s really hard to do this, so, fortunately, you don’t have to! There’s no real way to tell if congestion symptoms are indicative of the flu, COVID-19, or another cold. The best thing is to call your pediatrician with any concerns and see what testing and treatment are needed.” 

Find out how to ease symptoms and when you should take your little one in to see the doctor.

How do I know what is causing the congestion?

While it may seem haywire to differentiate between the symptoms, there are some things to look out for that might indicate what is causing the congestion.

Did you know?
The flu causes chest congestion in babies and might need a visit to the doctor. Nasal congestion is however caused by common cold and can be treated at home for mild symptoms. 

Dr. Po-Chang Hsu (MD), medical content expert at Sleeping Ocean, says, “The common cold is often milder and less likely to affect the baby’s appetite, sleep, or energy levels. Flu may have a more considerable effect. 

“COVID-19 symptoms are similar to flu and cold, making it harder to diagnose. However, it typically has a more gradual onset of symptoms. So, at first, parents may notice only one symptom, with the baby gradually showing more and more signs similar to the flu,” says Dr. Hsu.

Why do babies frequently have congestion?

Your little one may experience congestion frequently because their bodies are still building their immunity. When you catch a cold or flu, the tissues inside your nose fill up with fluids. And since your baby has a teeny tiny nose, even a little inflammation causes an annoying stuffy nose. 

Babies do not know how to breathe through their mouth or blow their nose, making it all the more difficult for them to breathe. This makes them cranky, especially during nap times and feeding times. 

Preemie babies do not necessarily have congestion more than full-term babies. But they are smaller and have a slightly increased risk for contracting infections. Congestion in babies tends to result from cigarette smoke, viral infections, pollutants, or other irritants.

Ways to help a congested baby sleep

We know it’s been hard on you and your baby. Here are a few techniques you can try to help your little one breathe better and save you both some sleepless nights.

Saline drops with a nasal aspirator or suction bulb

The best way to relieve nasal congestion in babies is using good old-fashioned saline drops or saline spray. This helps to clear any thick mucus blocking their nostrils. You can then use either a nasal aspirator or a bulb syringe to suck out the mucus. 

With the nasal aspirator, place the tip in your baby’s nostril and suck on the other end until the mucus comes out. (Don’t worry, a filter prevents the mucus from coming near your mouth!)

In case you use a bulb syringe, squeeze the bulb before you place the tip in your baby’s nose and then release it. This will suck out any mucus in the nose that might make it difficult for your baby to breathe.

Follow this method before feeding and nap times to make it easier for both of you.

Use a cool-mist humidifier

The winter season might cause dryness and worsen your baby’s congestion. To combat this, use cool-mist humidifiers, which help moisten your little one’s nasal passages without heating up their nursery. 

Place it out of reach of your baby but somewhere close so that the air will reach them. Wash and dry out the humidifier every day or after use to avoid mold. 

Keep them hydrated

Feeding your baby while they are congested might be the biggest challenge. Since it’s more difficult to breathe, they will find it harder to suck. But he or she must stay hydrated during this time to fight off the infection. 

To compensate for the reduced feeding time, nurse/bottle feed your baby as often as possible. (Ideally, every 30 to 40 minutes.) 🍼 This helps to avoid your baby getting dehydrated.

Air out your baby’s room

Vacuum the carpets regularly to remove any dust, smoke, or pet dander. Wash your baby’s clothes with light, unscented fabric washes.

Avoid burning incense or candles in your baby’s room. Do not smoke in your house or car, and close your windows if there is pollution outside. You can also consider purchasing an air filter to ensure that the air is clean of any irritant that might cause congestion in babies.

Hold your baby upright

Use a baby carrier/wrap to help keep your infant upright as you go about your day. This position might help your baby’s stuffy nose. 

Remember that you will have to lie your baby down on a flat mattress while putting them to sleep. We know that this might not necessarily help your baby with their congestion, but the AAP recommends laying your baby on a smooth surface at all times. (However, you can let your infant take a little trip to the dream zone in their baby carriage during daytime naps under supervision.)

Also, avoid using any cloth or stands to elevate your baby’s mattresses while putting them down to sleep. If your baby is fussy at night, consider using a saline spray and humidifier. Alternatively, you can take turns with your partner to hold your baby upright at night for a few minutes. 

Make a baby sauna

You can have your own little sauna session with your baby. 🚿 Run hot water and sit on a towel on the bathroom floor with your little one for five to 10 minutes. (Any longer and you risk overheating.)

The steam will help soothe the congestion and help them breathe better. 

Give your babe a gentle massage

Gently massage your little one’s nose, eyebrows, forehead, cheeks, and temples. This will help release their sinuses. Moreover, your touch provides comfort and helps relieve pain for your baby.

When should I see a doctor?

While congestion in babies is usually not serious, it is always better to look out for signs which might need you to call your doctor immediately. You should seek emergency medical care if your baby shows any signs of:

  • Dehydration
  • Trouble breathing 
  • Painful or persistent cough
  • Wheezing 
  • Fever (rectal temperature >= 100.4℉)
  • Being unable to keep down liquids
  • Exhibiting low  energy or being slow to respond
  • Pale or bluish lips

“If you know they have been exposed to someone with a viral infection, then it is still safe to call your doctor and let them or their nursing staff know what is going on so they are aware and can check on you and the baby even if they agree you do not need to come in immediately for assessment,” says Dr. Jessica Daigle, (MD) NICU Hospitalist.  

Always consult your doctor for any medical advice. Avoid self-medicating or buying over-the-counter (OTC) medications for your baby.

As guidelines around the COVID-19 pandemic continue to evolve, we recommend checking the CDC website for the most up-to-date health information.

Sources:

  1. COVID 19 symptoms in kids. 2021. John Hopkins Medicine. “Coronavirus in Babies and kids
  2. Avoid cloth or stand to elevate your baby’s mattress. 2016. American Academy of Pediatrics. “SIDS and other sleep-related infant deaths: Updated 2016 recommendations for a safe infant sleeping environment
  3. Number of COVID 19 cases has increased in children. 2021. American Academy of Pediatrics. “Children and COVID 19: State level data report” 
  4. Avoid OTC medications. 2021. FDA. “Should you give kids medicine for coughs and colds?”

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