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How to Relieve Baby Congestion

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Gina Jansheski, MD, FAAP
Congestion is common in babies. Learn how to treat it.

Is your baby suffering from nasal congestion? Are you looking for ways you can provide relief?

It can be heartbreaking to watch your baby struggle with their first stuffy nose. You are going to have to do whatever you can to help them overcome it since they aren’t quite old enough to clear their nose out alone.

There are some remedies and a few over-the-counter solutions that can help your baby. It’s important you review all your options and choose those that will be safe and effective.

What Causes Nasal Congestion In Babies?

Nasal congestion very often occurs when the tissues inside the nose begin to swell. This is usually accompanied by the production of mucus. There is a variety of things that can cause your baby to develop nasal congestion.

  • Little noses: A baby has such small nasal passages that it doesn’t take much mucus to block their nose, and you will hear the congestion.
  • Cannot blow their nose: Imagine if you were too little to clean out your nose yourself and you couldn’t even blow your nose! All of the secretions would get stuck in there, and stay around for a while, at least until you sneeze. It is helpful to know that sneezing is one of the ways infants clear their noses.
  • Dry air: Artificial heat and air conditioning can leave the air in your home super dry. This can cause some irritation of the nose and congestion will develop as a result.
  • Nasal infection: Nasal infections in infants are due to viruses like the common cold. As long as the virus is living and multiplying in that area, the body will respond by producing inflammation, and thick mucus secretions will develop that can block their nose (1).
  • Irritants: Your baby has a sensitive nose and any irritants like dust, cleaning products, perfumes, and artificial scents, animal dander, or cigarette smoke can cause issues.
  • Trauma: Too much nasal suctioning can cause irritation and the development of mucus and congestion, so keep that in mind. Babies can sometimes manage to get their fingers into their noses, although it is a little hit and miss, and this may cause irritation and even bleeding.
  • Foreign bodies in the nose: Babies put most things they can reach into their mouths. Sometimes they can accidentally put objects into their nose, which can block the normal breathing and increase nasal secretions.
  • Reflux: Everyone knows that babies spit up a lot and that it’s normal. Sometimes, it can even come up through their nose and may be a little startling for moms. The stomach contents and acid are irritating to the nasal passages and, if this is happening frequently even on a low level where you can’t see it, can cause ongoing nasal congestion in the back part of the nose.
  • Allergies: When allergy season kicks in, the people affected by it know right away. Your baby may be sensitive to the same things you are. Pollens can create havoc inside the nasal passages, and it’s even worse on windy days that make the particles sail through the air and into your nose. These effects tend to be seasonal, but there are other types of allergies such as those to milk products, that cause ongoing increased mucus production.
  • Nasal growths: The growth or enlargement of abnormal tissue in the nose is somewhat unusual in babies. It can be from things like nasal polyps (found more often in children with cystic fibrosis), cysts that form due to dilation of the tear ducts, and rare nasal tumors (2).
  • Anatomical blockage: Besides having a growth that develops in the nasal passage, babies can be born with a structural problem that blocks off the airway, like the walls of a tunnel if they are not straight. Sometimes the cartilage of the nose might not be straight creating a narrowing called stenosis, which can stop the air from flowing smoothly. Also, a problem can occur during the development of the nasal structures, and they will be shaped abnormally affecting the airflow, like in choanal atresia (3).

What Are The Symptoms?

It is important to know the symptoms associated with nasal congestion so you can determine if that is actually the issue your baby is experiencing. Nasal congestion is a fairly obvious problem, but there are some things that go along with it that may not be as apparent.

  • Feeding difficulties.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Nasal discharge.
  • Noisy nasal breathing.
  • Snoring.
  • Snorting.
  • Sneezing.
  • Coughing.
  • Spitting up through the nose.
  • Baby picking at the nose.

Your baby may experience several of these and that does not necessarily mean that he or she is suffering from nasal congestion. The most tell-tale symptoms are nasal discharge and noisy breathing.

It’s common for your baby to have noisy nasal breathing and sneezing in the first few days of life, and it improves over the first week. It is likely that your baby still has some amniotic fluids they are trying to expel.

How To Relieve Nasal Congestion

The moment you notice your baby is a little congested, you probably begin wondering what you can do to help. Depending on the severity of the congestion, you have varied options.

  1. Saline drops: Administering saline drops into the nose can help thin out the mucus and clear the airways. Once you put the saline drops in and wait a few minutes, you can use a suction bulb or nasal aspirator to suck out the mucus, or you can flip the baby over on the stomach and let the saline drain out naturally. One thing to keep in mind if you feel your baby is suffering from allergens or irritants in the air. As you know, these small particles land in the nose, sit in there for periods of time and cause irritation galore. Use of nasal saline to clear them out of the nose, especially before bedtime, can be very helpful for babies and people of all ages.
  2. Suction bulb: This bulb is put into your baby’s nose, and you squeeze the end to essentially suction the snot out. These bulbs are usually given to you in the hospital, but some parents choose to buy the nasal aspirator instead.
    How to Use an Oral Suction Nasal Aspirator
  3. Nasal aspirator: A nasal aspirator is believed to be a much more efficient way to remove mucus from your baby’s nose. The NoseFrida is one popular aspirator on the market.
    How to Use an Electric Nasal Aspirator
  4. Humidifier: The use of a cool-mist humidifier will help to keep the air in your baby’s room moist. Moist air serves to keep the air passages from drying out and will even help loosen the built-up mucus in your baby’s nose.
  5. Vaporizer: If you want a different option other than the humidifier, a vaporizer is another effective method. Some parents choose vaporizers because they can attach menthol pads to help give their baby additional relief. The warm steam can help loosen your baby’s mucus, but be careful not to get too close because it can cause burns.
  6. Steam: Steam is a great way to help baby clear their nose. A good way to do this would be to go into the bathroom, shut the door, and run the shower for a few minutes, filling the room with steam, then turn it off. Find a comfortable place for you and your baby to sit in there for about 10 minutes or so, allowing the steam to work its magic.
  7. Feed more frequently: Your baby may be struggling to eat due to the inability to breathe through the nose properly, but it’s important they are still getting those feedings. You will find that they just feed for a short time because it is so much work, so just try to offer the feeds more frequently. Keeping your baby well-fed and hydrated helps them stay healthy or fight off any illness that might be causing the congestion.
  8. Wear your baby: You probably know from experience that nothing is worse than having nasal congestion and lying in a flat position. If you wear your baby while using a baby carrier, your baby will be in an upright position and this encourages the mucus to drain.
  9. Time for tummy time: Another good thing to do to help the secretions flow is to lay your baby on their stomach. Tummy time is helpful for baby’s development and should be done several times a day anyway until they are able to sit up. Use a brightly-colored object in front of them to keep their attention and give lots of smiles and praise.
  10. Improve air quality: Installation of filter to your home air conditioner and heater unit to eliminate allergens, not smoking indoors, vacuuming regularly, not wearing heavy scents or perfumes, and using unscented detergent and body wash can all be ways to improve air quality in your home and avoid contributing to nasal congestion in your baby.
  11. Steam: Steam is a great way to help your baby clear her nose. A good way to do this would be going in the bathroom, shutting the door, and starting the shower. Make sure you don’t stay there too long because your baby may become too warm.
  12. Know when to wait: If the congestion is not bothering your baby, you probably don’t need to intervene quite yet. Just watch your baby for signs of illness, such as fever, not feeding enough in a 24 hour period (even though they feed more often), not urinating as much as usual or having smelly, concentrated urine, and difficulty breathing.

There are over-the-counter medications designed for nasal congestion, but many of them have dangerous risks associated with them, and they are not recommended for use until after the age of 4 years. Never give your baby or young child any kind of nose drops other than saline, as discussed above. You should contact your doctor if you feel like you need to use any over-the-counter medications.

What To Avoid When Treating Congestion

Many parents are quick to think of all the ways they would treat their own stuffy nose, but these ways aren’t always safe or effective for your little baby.

It is important to know what you should avoid when trying to help your baby.

  • Vicks Vaporub: Vicks can work wonders on adults, but it can actually make matters worse for babies. There is a Vicks Vaporub designed for babies, but it can cause the snot in your baby’s nose to actually increase.
  • Over-the-counter nasal decongestants: It’s best to avoid these because many of them have not yet been tested on babies. You don’t want to introduce a substance that could be harmful and that can actually make things worse.
  • Your fingers: You may see snot and have the notion to want to take matters into your own hands — literally. If you use your finger to try and unclog your baby’s nose, there is a high chance you can actually make the nose bleed and introduce infection.
  • Tissue/Cotton balls/Cotton swabs: You may feel bad your baby’s nose is constantly running and maybe even flowing right into her mouth. Some parents have the idea of sticking cotton in the baby’s nose to absorb the snot. This is actually very dangerous because the cotton can travel upward and potentially get stuck, and cotton swabs can damage the inner lining of the nasal passages, causing more mucus and maybe even bleeding.

You may find certain products that say they are okay for babies. Many might be, but you should still seek your doctor’s approval before using them.

If you know someone who has used a certain product on their baby with no negative results, this doesn’t mean it is safe to use on your baby. Every baby is unique and may respond to substances in different ways, whether they are “natural” products or pharmaceuticals. There may be risks associated with the use of these products that you are not aware of, so let your pediatrician know and give you the best advice on the safety of anything you are thinking about using to help your baby.

When to See a Doctor

Nasal congestion that comes and goes is essentially harmless and should resolve itself within a week or two. But there are some cases where it can present a potentially dangerous problem for your baby.

Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room if your baby has signs of severe breathing trouble, such as (4):

  • A panicked look.
  • Grunting or moaning at the end of each breath.
  • Flaring nostrils.
  • Ribs pulling in on each breath.
  • Breathing too hard or fast to be able to feed.
  • Blue tint to the skin especially around lips and nails.

The Bottom Line

Nasal congestion can result in some long nights for mom and baby. It is hard to be a parent and watch your child suffer any kind of discomfort, especially when they are so small and helpless. There is always that nagging feeling inside like there should be something more you can do.

Hang in there — your baby should kick the congestion in about a week or two. In the meantime, you can try different solutions to help give your baby some relief. If one thing doesn’t work, move on to the next, or even try a combination. But, remember, do not use over-the-counter medications or treatments, as many are not proven to be safe for babies.

Your baby will probably suffer from nasal congestion many times before the age of 2, so don’t beat yourself up about it happening so soon. Stay positive and keep an eye on your baby. However, if the methods suggested in this article do not help, you should contact your doctor to cover all bases and be safe.

Headshot of Dr. Gina Jansheski, MD, FAAP

Medically Reviewed by

Dr. Gina Jansheski, MD, FAAP

Dr. Gina Jansheski is a board-certified pediatrician with over 20 years of experience treating infants and children of all ages in many different settings. Dr. Jansheski is the mother to three sons, has sponsored a young girl in India for the past 7 years and has also devoted her time to a new charity that she founded, Helping Hands M.D. feeding street animals in Thailand and India.