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Baby Congestion: Why Do Newborns Sneeze a Lot?

The short (or very long) transition from labor to that precious moment when you cradle your sweet bundle of joy for the very first time can feel like a whirlwind. The window of time from delivery to leaving the hospital can feel even more overwhelming, especially for first-time parents. 

The nurse rolls you out to the front of the hospital building while you carry your darling, fragile newborn in their car seat and the weight of impending responsibility consumes you. As you drive back to your home well-below the speed limit, you hear *ah chu* from the back seat. “No way can he/she be sick already?” “Are they supposed to sneeze this young?” “Should we go back to the hospital?” 

Deep breath. Sneezing is a normal, early-life reflex that keeps your newborn’s airways clear for easy breathing. You can rest assured that the sweet little sneezes coming from your newborn are actually a positive sign of a developing respiratory system. 

Why Do Babies Sneeze So Much?

Why do newborns sneeze a lot?

Between 5 and 6 weeks of pregnancy, the mother’s body miraculously creates an umbilical cord (out of thin air, isn’t that insane?!) that provides oxygen to the developing fetus. From this point through the exceptionally anxious moments before your baby’s first cry, you are helping your baby breathe. 

As an adult, it is difficult to fathom learning how to breathe; aside from moments of panic, recovery from an exhaustive exercise, or deep breathing encouragement in a yoga class, we breathe without thinking and effort. Unfortunately, this is not the case for newborns and sneezing is their body’s way of regulating and improving their breathing. 

So, why exactly does your baby sneeze so much? There are 4 major reasons why your baby sneezes frequently: to clear a clogged airway, irritation from environmental factors, dry air, or they have a cold.

To Clear a Clogged Airway

The first 3-4 months of your munchkin’s life is a critical development period for their respiratory system. During this time, babies breathe primarily through their nose, which makes a clogged nostril particularly troubling. 

Lingering amniotic fluid from the womb, breastmilk, regurgitated milk, and saliva are the most common culprits that clog a newborn’s airway. Sneezing is the body’s natural response to a blockage in the airway that can interfere with breathing.  

Reaction to an Environmental Irritant

Think back to the last time you did something for the very first time. Chances are you were not very good and you were probably very sensitive to every minute detail during the process. Now think about something you do really well; something that is second nature to you or something you can “do in your sleep…” 

It sounds obvious, but babies are new people; everything they do is for the first time, and they are particularly sensitive to the details. This applies to breathing. Babies are learning to breathe more efficiently every single day; as a result, they are sensitive to environmental irritants that would otherwise go unnoticed to a seasoned nose. Things like: dust, pet hair, lint, perfume, cleaning chemicals, and general pollution from the nearly 7.9 billion people that live on planet Earth can affect your tiny’s breathing. 

External irritants are a common cause of baby congestion and sneezing.

Sneezing is your newborn’s way of clearing the nasal passage from environmental irritants so they can breathe with less difficulty. Pretty impressive this is a natural reflex, huh?

The Air is Too Dry

Dry air can wreak havoc on your respiratory system. Without sufficient environmental moisture, you can experience the following symptoms:

  • Congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Excessive sneezing
  • Dry throat or frequent coughing
  • Nosebleeds
  • Allergy flare ups
  • Dry skin
  • Exacerbated skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis

And those are the common symptoms of excessively dry air with adults. Can you imagine the impact of dry air on a newborn or small baby? 

The optimal range of relative humidity (RH) for your home is between 40% and 60%. When RH levels sit below 40%, you or your small child will experience the mild to severe symptoms listed above. When RH levels exceed 50%, the surplus moisture creates a breeding ground for mold, dust mites, bacteria, and other unwanted entities. It is best to ensure humidity levels remain within optimal range to ensure the health and safety of you and your family.  

The Cold or Flu

While frequent sneezing is common among newborns, sneezing accompanied by additional symptoms like a fever, coughing, and a runny nose could be a sign of illness. If your child is experiencing concurrent symptoms, call your doctor immediately

Your sweet pea’s immune system is rapidly developing during their first year of life; by nature, an underdeveloped immune system is more prone to illness. The only way to prevent your child from developing a cold or a flu is to kindly ask family, friends, and loved ones to refrain from visiting your baby if they are sick, feel early symptoms of illness, or have recently been around sick individuals.  

Why Do Infants Have Stuffy Noses?

Why do infants have stuffy noses?

Frequent sneezing is not the only newborn phenomenon. Stuffy noses are also common with newborns and babies well into their 6th month. Why is this the case?

While stuffy noses are an additional symptom of the sneeze triggers listed above, your little tater tot can also experience a stuffy nose or congestion as a result of the following:

  • Amniotic fluid clogging the nasal airway. Babies take “practice” breaths in the womb from 10 weeks on. These practice breaths fill the lungs with amniotic fluid rather than oxygen (which we discussed is supplied by the umbilical cord). Remnants of amniotic fluid can remain in the nasal cavity after birth clogging the airway. 
  • Small nose, small airway. Your little sugar might not actually be congested, but they may sound congested as a result of a small airway. A small airway can only suction a small amount of air, which makes their breathing sound stuffy. 
  • Deep breathing. While this sounds counterintuitive, deep breathing is an irregular occurrence in newborns. Deep breaths vibrate the nasal airway, which makes your sweetie pie sound stuffy, even if their passages are perfectly clear. 

When to Call the Doctor

Mild congestion is a normal, albeit a frustrating reaction for your baby. Generally, congestion will clear up on its own through the body’s natural healing process. You should call a doctor if your newborn’s congestion interferes with feeding or nursing, and/or if your baby has a rectal temperature of 100.4 or higher

At-Home Remedies

If your child is experiencing cold or flu symptoms in addition to frequent sneezing and congestion, they are refusing to feed, or they have a temperature of 100.4 or higher, you need to call your doctor. 

If your baby is otherwise healthy with an occasional sneeze, or congestion that does not interfere with feeding, you can incorporate one or both of the following at-home remedies for a quick fix and a happy, congestion-free babe.

Humidifier: The Miracle Tool

Humidifiers are a miraculous tool to incorporate into your child’s nursery room. While this unconventional appliance might not be top of mind when making your baby registry, it certainly should be. 

We delve deep into the wonders of using a humidifier for your little peanut in our blog What Does a Humidifier Do for Babies? In brief, a humidifier can provide the following benefits for your baby, well into their elementary school years:

  • Improve congestion
  • Improve dry skin
  • Reduces severity of cold or flu symptoms
  • Provides a soothing sound for sleeping

Why Choose a Canopy Humidifier

Canopy humidifiers are the best choice for your baby’s nursery. While we certainly are biased, we can back our statement up with facts. 

Most humidifiers require a weekly deep clean and some even require a more frequent deep clean. We made this process as simple as possible; you have enough to do. Canopy humidifiers are incredibly easy to clean. All of the Canopy components, except for the disposable paper filter, are dishwasher safe

Plain and simple. We created not one but two fail-safes to protect you and your baby. We placed powerful UV lights in our device that kill 99.9% of bacteria in the water tank. That additional .1%? We got you. Our disposable paper filter stops any remaining contaminants from entering the air, keeping your precious baby safe and healthy. Canopy humidifiers are completely safe.

Lastly, but certainly not least is our filter subscription option. We know you are incredibly busy, with keeping a human alive and all. So, we created a subscription service, which auto-ships a new paper filter every 45 days - no thinking necessary. Just enjoy your time with your sweet pea.

Bring in the Back-Up: Saline Drops

Saline drops and a suction bulb are great medicine cabinet essentials for “just in case.” Saline is a gentle purified salt solution that loosens mucus in the nasal cavity for easy breathing. 

If your tiny’s congestion needs a little extra TLC, you can fall back on saline drops. Follow the dosage directions on the box and use a suction bulb to remove larger pieces of mucus from the nasal cavity. 

Saline drops and suction bulbs are an as-needed remedy that should be used sparingly. The human body is a miraculous machine that can often remedy itself, but may need a bit of help now and again.