A newborn has a way of inducing panic and stress in even the most calm, cool, and collected new parent. As a first-time mama or papa, every new sound, movement, and cry is a brand-new experience that can trigger a major spike in cortisol. How do you know everything is OK until it’s not OK?
We are here to check at least one worry off your undocumented “worry” list. That worry item is: congestion. How can you tell if your baby is congested or if there is a more serious, underlying issue?
While you should always consult with your pediatrician in the case of a medical emergency, we have a few pieces of insight that may help to ease your worry and anxiety.
How can I tell if my baby is congested?
Your peanut wakes up from a nap with slight sniffling, a few sneezes, and you can hear her little breaths, when you could have sworn her breathing never made a sound. Is your baby congested?
Let’s start with the two types of congestion: nasal congestion and chest congestion.
Types of Baby Congestion
There are two types of congestion that can affect your little bean: nasal congestion and chest congestion. Nasal congestion is a common and totally normal response to your infant’s developing airways while chest congestion poses a serious medical threat and should be addressed immediately.
Nasal congestion is a particularly common occurrence in newborns, and is frequently of little to no concern. This type of congestion often causes a stuffy or runny nose, which is irritating to your precious, but not detrimental.
Your sweet bundle of joy may experience congestion frequently during the first few months of life until they learn to breathe through their mouth.
The signs of nasal congestion are mild. If your baby is regularly feeding and exhibiting normal behaviors, they may have a slight case of nasal congestion. Not to fret!
Here are the symptoms of nasal congestion for quick reference:
- Slight sniffling
- Light coughing
- Frequent sneezing
- Noisy breathing
Chest congestion is less common than nasal congestion in newborns and young children, which is a relief to new parents everywhere.
Chest congestion is a sign of fluid in the lungs, which needs immediate medical attention. Chest congestion can be a sign of the following conditions: asthma, the flu, pneumonia, cystic fibrosis, bronchiolitis, or transient tachypnea (a condition that generally occurs within the first two days after birth).
While chest congestion is the least common cause of congestion in babies, there are a few symptoms with which to familiarize yourself to be safe:
- Frequent coughing
- Rapid breathing
- Refusal to eat during a regular feeding
If your baby is exhibiting any of these symptoms, call your doctor immediately or, if you observe these symptoms after hours, speak with the on-call nurse.
If your baby is having difficulty breathing, call 9-1-1 immediately.
What causes my baby’s congestion?
There are four common causes of congestion in babies: leftover amniotic fluid from the womb, small airways, external irritants or pollutants, and a cold or the flu.
Remnant amniotic fluid clogging your little’s airway may be the culprit causing congestion.
At week 10 of your pregnancy, babies start taking “practice” breaths in the womb. This practice breath fills the airways and lungs with amniotic fluid rather than oxygen, which is supplied by the umbilical cord.
When your tater tot enters the world, some amniotic fluid may remain in the nasal cavity, clogging their airway and causing congestion.
Small little noses mean small airways. Your baby has such small, precious airways that microscopic, external irritants (as mentioned below) can inflame the mucus membranes in their nasal cavity, which happens much more frequently when you have small airways.
As your pumpkin develops, their airways will continue to increase, reducing sensitivity over time.
Babies and small children exhibit higher sensitivity to external irritants including: pet dander, dust, mold, airborne viruses, pollen, and more.
If your home has higher levels of irritants, this may trigger inflammation in the mucus membranes, which causes congestion in your jelly bean.
A Cold or The Flu
A small case of the sniffles may have a new parent shudder in fear that their little caught the cold or the flu. As elaborated in this section, there are plenty of reasons why your sweet pea has congestion that are not the common cold or a case of the flu.
But, people get sick and that includes your lovebug. The cold or the flu are particularly prominent during the winter months, when humidity levels are low, temperatures drop to freezing, and the wind has a chill that hits the bone.
The dry, chilly air of the winter can increase your baby’s chances of catching a cold or the flu. In addition, the dehydrated, recycled heat blasting from your home furnace can cause congestion that just won’t quit.
6 Home Remedies for Congestion in Babies
Nasal congestion rarely requires a visit to your pediatrician’s office. In fact, there are plenty of home remedies for baby congestion that can dramatically improve congestion symptoms in your infant.
Whether you try one home remedy or an array of home remedies, you can rest easy knowing that your munchkin’s nasal congestion is temporary and treatable.
Home Remedy #1: Breast Milk
Breast milk truly is a miraculous elixir. Breast milk has purportedly been used to treat eye and ear infections, heal cuts and minor burns, improve discomfort for dry and cracked nipples, and more.
Breast milk is a powerful, natural remedy for treating congestion in babies. Just 1-2 drops of breast milk in each nostril is required to loosen clogging mucus and alleviate congestion in your sweet pea.
Home Remedy #2: Saline Drops
An equally effective remedy for treating congestion in babies is the use of saline drops. High quality saline drops can be found at your local drugstore, BuyBuy Baby, or you can find great saline options on Amazon.
You only need 1-2 saline drops per nostril to effectively remove mucus and debris in the nostril. As always, it is recommended to read your saline drop user guide for exact directions regarding usage.
Home Remedy #3: Nasal Aspirator
An aspirator is a device that suctions mucus from the nasal cavity. A bulb syringe is the most easily identifiable nasal aspirator; most hospital departure bags contain one of these nasal aspirators along with a few paper guides on how to keep your child alive for the first year. Thanks, Doc!
Nasal aspirators work best after the mucus is loosened in the airway. Apply 1-2 drops of either breast milk or saline to your baby’s nostril to loosen any dried mucus, and use your nasal aspirator to unclog their airways.
Home Remedy #4: Humidifier
A humidifier is a multifaceted home device that can improve your overall health when used regularly. Humidifiers can reduce congestion, improve a dry or sore throat, alleviate dry skin and chapped lips, kill the flu and COVID-19 viruses, and more.
Humidifiers are a great, at-home remedy for improving your little one’s congestion. Low or insufficient humidity levels and fluctuating temperatures can trigger swelling of the membranes in your baby’s nose. Since infants already have a tiny airway, this swelling sounds an awful lot like congestion.
Optimal humidity levels for your home sit between 40% and 60% relative humidity (RH). You can use a hygrometer or your smart thermostat to monitor humidity levels in your home. Choosing the right humidifier is of utmost importance.
Canopy Humidifier is one of the safest humidifiers for your baby, because of its unique evaporative technology. Canopy Humidifier is mist-free, meaning no dust, dirt, or particles will end up in your baby's air, on their skin, or in their lungs. Not only does a humidifier help with chest and nasal congestion, but also keeps their skin soft (especially if your baby has eczema), and creates an overall more comforting sleep environment.
Home Remedy #5: Take a Bath
Your parents, your parent’s parents, or your parent’s grandparents may have shared this little piece of invaluable advice with you: if your baby is fussy, take them outside or put them in the bath.
Boy, is this true! A warm bath is a perfect, comforting remedy for baby congestion. The heat from the bath can ease congestion and lubricate those delicate mucus membranes.
Home Remedy #6: Air Purifier
If you live in a geographical location with particularly high levels of pollen during the spring months, if you have a pet, or if you like to keep your windows open for fresh air, you may want to invest in an air purifier.
An air purifier inactivates bothersome particles in the air that may trigger inflammation in your precious baby’s nasal passage.
“Do I really need a humidifier and an air purifier?”
Short answer: maybe! An air purifier will reduce potential inflammatory triggers while a humidifier will help to reduce inflammation and lubricate the cilia in your baby’s airways so they can breathe easy.
When should I call the doctor about my baby’s congestion?
Nasal congestion is a mild and common occurrence in babies. If your child is experiencing mild nasal congestion, but they are otherwise happy, healthy, and eating during their regularly scheduled feeds, you can attempt one of the afore-mentioned home remedies to treat their congestion.
If, however, your baby is refusing to feed, has a temperature of 100.4 or higher, or exhibits rapid breathing and/or wheezing, you should call your pediatrician immediately or speak with the on-call nurse.
If you notice your baby is struggling to breathe, call 9-1-1 regardless of additional symptoms.