How to Help a Baby With Congestion

Crying baby being held by mother

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Your baby has a stuffy nose, and you're wondering what you should do. Rest assured that it's very common for babies to have nasal congestion from time to time, especially when they are a newborn. Often, your baby's stuffy nose is nothing to worry about and can easily be treated with home remedies.

Keep in mind that baby noses are small with tiny nasal passages. Because of that, your baby might sneeze often, too. These sneezes don't necessarily mean they have a cold, but instead are their body's natural way of clearing the nose of irritants. Below is everything you need to know about baby congestion, including how to help your baby when they have a stuffy nose and when to call the doctor.

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Click Play to Learn How to Help Your Baby With Uncomfortable Congestion

What Causes Congestion in Babies

As long as your baby's congestion is not accompanied by other symptoms or interfering with their eating or breathing, there is most likely no reason for concern. At birth, it's normal for babies to be congested. They typically get some amniotic fluid in their noses that can result in stuffiness for the first few days after birth.

Saliva, breast milk, or formula can also make their way into your baby's nose, causing them to sneeze in an effort to clear it out. Other causes of congestion include airborne substances, such as dust, pet dander, hairspray, perfume, and cigarette smoke, all of which can irritate nasal passages.

Finally, dry air, colds, viruses, and allergies are common causes of nasal congestion, as well. With so many potential reasons for congestion in babies, it's not surprising that they may have a stuffy nose more often than not.

Congestion vs. Runny Nose

Congestion is when nasal passages are swollen with excess mucus, while a runny nose is characterized by fluid coming out of the nose. "Stuffy noses are on the opposite spectrum of the runny nose," says Dr. Stempel.

"An upper respiratory infection, or the common cold, is the most common cause of a runny nose in babies," says Hilary Stempel, MD, MPH, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital Colorado and assistant professor of pediatrics at University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Congestion, on the other hand, is not necessarily a sign of infection. "Nearly all babies will get a stuffy nose and this can sound very dramatic! Just a tiny bit of snot can block a baby’s tiny nostril and make loud 'snorky' sounds," explains Dr. Stempel.

Help a baby with congestion

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

How to Prevent Baby Congestion

While some congestion is inevitable, especially in newborns, there are things you can do to help prevent bothersome congestion, especially from colds. The first step is knowing what congestion culprits to avoid. For instance, keep your baby away from the following common nasal irritants:

  • Aerosol sprays
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Hair sprays
  • Lint and dust
  • Paint or gasoline fumes
  • Perfumes or scented body lotions
  • Pet hair

For babies under 3 months old, it's important to keep them away from anyone who is sick. Avoiding crowds can help, too. This practice is especially important in the winter months when more people are sick with colds and other viruses. Keep in mind that a virus that only causes a mild illness in an adult can result in a serious situation for an infant.

Hilary Stempel, MD, MPH

To prevent colds in babies, have plans in place when your baby meets new people. For example, make certain everyone washes their hands, is current on their vaccines (flu, Tdap, COVID), and is free of cold symptoms when being with your baby.

— Hilary Stempel, MD, MPH

Also, make sure you are frequently washing your hands with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. If you have older children in the house, be sure they are also frequently washing their hands and covering their coughs. You also should stay up-to-date on your vaccines, including the flu vaccine and COVID-19 vaccine. Doing so will help protect your baby from exposure to these illnesses.

What to Consider When Helping a Baby With Congestion

Some doctors advise against treating your newborn's stuffy nose, especially if they're feeding well and urinating normally. They argue that it usually isn't necessary to further irritate a baby's nasal passage with salt water or bulb syringes.

Others may recommend simple solutions to clear nasal congestion. These include using a humidifier, saline drops, and/or a bulb syringe. "It can be most helpful to remove mucus from your baby’s nose before feeding so your baby can eat more easily," explains Dr. Stempel.

How to Treat Congestion in Babies

If your newborn is particularly congested and appears distressed, there are some things you can do. "Helping remove the mucus from your baby’s nose should make them more comfortable," says Dr. Stempel.

If you decide to try one or more home remedies, here's what you need to know about helping clear your baby's congested nose.

Invest in a Humidifier

A humidifier or cool-mist vaporizer in your baby's room will add moisture to the air and help your baby breathe more easily. Be sure to clean the humidifier regularly in order to prevent mold growth. Avoid the use of warm-mist vaporizers as they have the potential of burning your baby.

Start With Saline Nasal Drops

Over-the-counter saline nasal drops can be helpful for loosening a mucus-filled baby nose. "Putting nasal saline in your baby’s nose will often help them sneeze to remove the snot on their own," says Dr. Stempel. These drops thin the mucus and help your baby move it out of their nose.

Use a Bulb Syringe

After using saline drops, you can then use a bulb syringe or nasal aspirator to suck out the mucus and clear your baby's nose. Don't be overly aggressive with these devices though, as it's easy to do more harm than good.

Hilary Stempel, MD, MPH

While it may be tempting to vigorously remove snot from your baby’s nose, this can be problematic. Too much irritation from a suction tool (using bulb suction too often or using a powerful motorized suction tool) can cause swelling and irritation of your baby’s nostrils. This irritation can make breathing even more difficult.

— Hilary Stempel, MD, MPH

Safety Precautions

When it comes to addressing nasal congestion, there are some things you should steer clear of regardless of how congested your baby's nose is. Here's what to avoid.

Cough and Cold Medicines

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend cough and cold medicines for children under 4 years of age. Meanwhile, children 4 to 6 years of age should only be given cough and cold medications if their pediatrician recommends it.

Menthol Rubs

Rubs (such as Vicks VapoRub) are not recommended for children under 2 years of age. Experts warn that these products can irritate and cause dangerous narrowing of the airway in infants and young children.

Wedges Under the Crib Mattress

The AAP's safe sleep recommendations include placing your baby on their back to sleep on a firm, flat surface like a crib or a bassinet. The use of wedges or other devices is not recommended, as propping up your baby may increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

When to See Your Baby’s Pediatrician

Be sure to see a doctor right away if your baby is younger than 3 months old and their stuffy nose is making it difficult for them to breathe comfortably or nurse or drink from a bottle, says Dr. Stempel. If the congestion is related to a cold, you should contact a doctor right away. Colds in babies this young can quickly become dangerous problems like croup, bronchiolitis, or pneumonia.

For children older than 3 months, call for a medical appointment if their nasal congestion lasts longer than 10 to 14 days. You also should contact a doctor if your baby has a fever over 102, is lethargic or cranky, appears to have ear pain, or has a cough that won't go away.

Regardless of your baby's age, get help right away either by going to the emergency room or calling 9-1-1 if your baby's congestion is making it difficult for them to breathe.

Signs that your baby is struggling for air include:

  • Fast breathing
  • Lips or nails that are turning blue
  • Nostrils that get larger with each breath
  • Skin around the ribs sucking in with each breath

A Word From Verywell

Often, your baby's stuffy nose bothers you more than it bothers your baby. Stuffy noses are very common, especially in newborns, and babies can cope quite well on their own. Of course, if the congestion is lingering you can use a cool-mist humidifier to make their sleeping environment more comfortable.

Saline drops along with a nasal aspirator are other options, but they should not be used aggressively or too often. The best course of action is often to simply wait it out. If you're concerned about your baby's stuffy nose, contact a pediatric healthcare provider for advice. But as long as they don't have any other symptoms or a cold, a stuffy nose is usually nothing to worry about.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does newborn congestion last?

    Newborns often have congestion soon after birth because of excess amniotic fluid in their noses. As a result, you may notice them sneezing more frequently as they work to clear the congestion. Fortunately, this congestion should clear on its own within a few days to a week.

  • What kind of humidifier is best for baby congestion?

    Moist air not only helps relieve your baby's nasal congestion but it also can make for a more comforting sleep environment. When selecting a humidifier for your baby, it's best to opt for a cool-mist humidifier over a warm-mist one.

    Although they both accomplish the same thing, a cool-mist humidifier is safer because the steam from a warm-mist humidifier could get too warm or burn your baby if they get too close. Even an accidental spill from a warm-mist humidifier can cause burns.

  • How can I help my congested baby sleep?

    When a young baby is congested due to a cold, sleeping can be a challenge. But there are things you can do to improve their sleep. First, try using a cool-mist humidifier in their room. Not only is the moist air comforting, but it also can keep mucus flowing and prevent it from clogging your baby's nose.

    Before bed, try using saline drops to thin the mucus and a nasal aspirator to clear away any excess mucus. If your baby wakes in the middle of the night to feed, you can clear their nasal passages again if they seem particularly stuffy.

8 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Sinus pain and congestion.

  3. Sears W, Sears M, Sears R, Sears J. The Baby Book, Revised Edition. Everything you need to know about your baby from birth to age two. Little, Brown and Company, 2013.

  4. American Academy of Pediatrics. Children and colds.

  5. American Academy of Pediatrics. Caring for your child's cold or flu.

  6. Chirico G, Quartarone G, Mallefet P. Nasal congestion in infants and children: A literature review on efficacy and safety of non-pharmacological treatments. Minerva Pediatr. 2014 Dec;66(6):549-57. PMID:25336097

  7. American Academy of Pediatrics. Colds: What you need to know.

  8. American Academy of Pediatrics. How to keep your sleeping baby safe: AAP policy explained.

Additional Reading

By Jennifer White
Jennifer White has authored parenting books and has worked in childcare and education fields for over 15 years.