What to Do If Your Baby Has a Cold

A mother suctioning her baby's nose

 Eric Audras / Getty Images

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Your baby woke up congested, with a stuffy nose. They are cranky and upset. It’s been hard to feed them because of how stuffed up they are. Napping and sleeping haven’t been easy either. You’re wondering what you can do to soothe your baby.

You’re feeling a little worried too. Is it normal for babies to get colds? At what point should you call your doctor? And what if the cold gets worse?

Rest assured, babies get colds all the time. So your baby is definitely normal. For the most part, you’ll just have to let the cold run its course. But there are some things you can do to keep your baby comfortable.

As for the worries? They are normal, too. All of us parents worry about our babies, especially when they are sick. While are some instances when colds can be concerning for babies, most babies fare well and are back to their usual selves before you know it.

Why Your Baby May Have a Cold

Newborns are known to get congested from time to time, but this congestion is usually mild and not linked to an illness. When you are talking about a baby getting full-blown cold, with a drippy nose and congestion, they have likely caught a virus. While we want to do everything in our power to shield babies from viruses, especially in their first few months, these things happen.

Your baby can catch a cold virus by:

  • Someone coughing or sneezing near them
  • Someone who is ill giving them a kiss (you are free to tell your guests not to kiss your baby!)
  • Any direct contact between someone who has a cold and your baby
  • Your baby making contact with a surface or a toy that is contaminated with a cold virus

Signs of a Cold

Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish between a few sneezes or mild stuffiness and an actual virus. Signs of a cold may vary from baby to baby and symptoms may be different from one cold virus to another. You know you're probably dealing with a cold if:

  • Your baby’s nose is running; mucus may be clear at first, then thicker as the cold progresses
  • They are sneezing frequently
  • They have a low-grade fever (101 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit is common with a cold)
  • They have a decreased appetite
  • They are drooling more
  • They may have difficulty eating and sleeping because of a stuffy nose and sore throat
  • They have a cough
  • They are more cranky than usual

Is It Common for Babies to Get Colds?

There are over 100 strains of the common cold, and your baby is going to be exposed to several of them in their first year or two. In fact, because babies have less mature immune systems and haven’t been exposed to many viruses, they are going to contract many more colds than older children or adults. Experts estimate that babies will have had 8-10 colds by the time they are two years old.

Warning Signs of a Cold

There is one instance where you need to call your doctor about your baby’s cold no matter what, and that is if your baby is younger than three months old. Although many babies three months old and younger fare just fine with a cold, for some babies, what appears to be a cold can be a more serious matter, especially if they contract a virus or infection like RSV, bronchiolitis, croup, pneumonia, or the flu.

You should call your doctor right away if your newborn exhibits signs of a cold, out of an abundance of caution. They will let you know whether a visit is necessary, and what other precautions you should take.

For most older babies, if their symptoms are mild and they are generally comfortable, you can certainly call your doctor for advice, but it is not usually necessary to bring your baby into the office.

However, if your baby shows any of the following warning signs, a visit to the doctor is in order:

  • Your baby is struggling to breathe: their nostrils flare with each breath, the skin at their collarbone sinks in when they take inhale, or their chest tightens and retracts while breathing.
  • Your baby’s lips or fingernails turn blue.
  • Your baby is very lethargic or unusually cranky.
  • Your baby has ear pain.
  • Your baby’s cough is lasting more than a week.
  • Your baby’s drippy nose lasts longer than 10-14 days.
  • Your baby’s temperature is more than 102 degrees.
  • Your baby seems to be getting sicker instead of recovering.
  • Your baby is not drinking or eating and shows signs of dehydration (fewer wet diapers, for example).
  • Your parental instincts tell you something is wrong.

What You Can Do to Ease Symptoms

Although you may wish you could just make all of your baby’s symptoms go away, you are just going to have to “ride it out” when it comes to your baby’s cold.

Over-the-counter cold and cough medicines are not safe for babies and antibiotics are used for bacterial infections, not cold viruses.

Thankfully, the most uncomfortable parts of the cold—the stuffy nose, congestion, and low-grade fever—usually only last a few days. Your baby’s cough may linger for another week or so and their nose may drip for a while too.

All that being said, there are some simple things you can try to ease your baby’s symptoms, or at least make them a little more comfortable.

Here are some things to try:

  • Saline nasal drops followed up with a bulb syringe to clear your baby’s nasal passages.
  • A cool-mist humidifier will keep your baby’s nasal passages moist, allow the mucous to stay thin, and make breathing easier.
  • If your baby is coughing or is very congested, taking them into the bathroom for about 15 minutes and turning on the hot water until the room gets steamy can be helpful.
  • A warm bath can also do the trick. Always stay with your baby when they are around water.
  • Honey is not safe for babies under one year, but a spoonful of honey for babies over a year can help with coughing.
  • Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help with any fever or sore throat symptoms; always consult with your doctor for dosage. Ibuprofen is not recommended for babies under six months, and babies should never be given aspirin.
  • Keep your baby well hydrated and give your baby lots of opportunities to rest.

When to See a Doctor

Again, if your baby is less than three months old and shows signs of a cold, you should call your doctor right away; you will most likely be advised to take your baby in to be evaluated.

Any older baby should be taken to a doctor if they are showing signs of breathing difficulties (wheezing or chest retractions). Colds usually only produce low-grade fevers below 102 degrees, so if your baby has a higher fever with a cold, it’s worth a call or visit to the doctor. Babies who become dehydrated or very lethargic with a cold should be seen as soon as possible.

What Will Your Doctor Do?

Once you bring your baby in, your doctor will:

  • Take your baby’s vital signs, listen to them breathing, examine their ears and throat, and ask you questions about your baby’s symptoms and the course of the illness.
  • If your doctor suspects that your baby has a more serious virus than just a common cold, they may take a nose or throat culture to identify the virus or infection that is making your baby ill.
  • Though rare, if your baby is seriously ill—for example, if they are severely dehydrated or are having breathing issues—your doctor may recommend hospitalization.
  • Depending on the diagnosis, your doctor may recommend medicine, such as antibiotics for bacterial infections or breathing treatments (bronchodilators and steroids) for wheezing.
  • Your doctor may also suggest other-the-counter fever-reducing medicine. Always consult with your doctor about which medicines are appropriate for your baby as well as proper dosing.

If Your Baby Is Still Coughing

It’s common for babies to have a lingering cough for a while, even after their cold symptoms have subsided. Coughs may last a week and sometimes more. As long as the cough is not bothering your baby or causing any breathing difficulties, you don’t need to worry.

However, if it has been more than a week and the cough is not subsiding, you should call your doctor for an evaluation.

You should call your doctor right away if:

  • If your baby is having difficulty breathing along with their cough—their chest is retracting or they are turning blue—you should take your baby to the emergency room.
  • The cough has gotten worse and a fever has returned.
  • Your baby’s cough is accompanied by wheezing.

How to Prevent Future Colds

To some extent, you have to make peace with the fact that babies get quite a few colds in their first year or two. As their immune system gets stronger, you will see fewer colds, but even young children get more colds than most of us would like. Still, there are precautions you can take to minimize colds.

Because colds can be serious for babies younger than three months, you should take extra precautions with them. Your doctor may ask you to avoid crowded areas for the first three months, and you can ask anyone who visits your baby to wash their hands before holding your baby. Anyone who is showing signs of illness should not visit your baby (you have permission to tell them this!).

General precautions you can take to minimize the chances of your baby contracting a cold include:

  • Have anyone who interacts with your baby wash their hands
  • All caregivers should sneeze and cough into their elbows, not their hands
  • Wash your baby’s hands frequently, especially if they have been out with other children or in public places where large numbers of people congregate
  • Keep up to date on your baby’s recommended vaccinations

A Word From Verywell

It can be so stressful when you are dealing with a baby who has caught a cold. Even a little cold can be a big deal for a baby. Rest assured that it’s very normal for babies to get colds—unfortunately, you can expect them to get quite a few in their first year or two. Most babies will do just fine and get over their cold within a matter of days (though that pesky cough can sure last a while).

Please remember that your doctor is there for you if you have any questions and you shouldn’t hesitate to call if your baby is very young or is showing any troubling signs. Remember to trust your instincts. Most of us know when something is truly wrong with our babies, and it is always best to reach out with any concerns you may have.

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

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common colds: how to protect yourself and others.

  3. Pappas DE. The common coldPrinciples and Practice of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. 2018;199-202.e1. doi:10.1016/B978-0-323-40181-4.00026-8

  4. American Academy of Pediatrics. Children and colds.

  5. World Health Organization. Cough or difficulty in breathing.

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a lactation consultant and writer covering maternal/child health, parenting, general health and wellness, and mental health. She has worked with breastfeeding parents for over a decade, and is a mom to two boys.