For a parent, few things are worse than dealing with a baby who has a cold. Sure, the common cold seems innocent enough, but for a sick infant or a young toddler? It takes on a whole different meaning. They’re miserable because they don’t feel well and they have no way of expressing that other than crying. They desperately need extra rest to feel better, but they’re too uncomfortable to get it. The first thing you need to do is figure out how to help a baby breathe better when they have a cold, and then — once they’re a little more comfortable — you can tackle how to get them to sleep better, too.
It sometimes seems like there’s almost no relief you can offer to a baby with a cold. They can’t have cold or cough medicine, doctors aren’t quick to give a prescription medicine for a viral infection. Babies and very little toddlers don’t yet know how to blow their nose (and probably don’t respond well to your attempts at using a tissue, either). Basically, all of the things that you would do to soothe cold symptoms for yourself or an older child can’t be done for your little one. It can leave you feeling helpless, not to mention exhausted. While a call to your pediatrician is always worth it when your baby isn’t feeling well — even just for reassurance that it’ll pass — you can also check out some of the tips below on how to help your baby breathe better with a cold.
How to help baby breathe with a cold
Nasal congestion can make anyone have trouble breathing, but it’s especially hard on babies. “Baby nasal passages are narrow and their upper respiratory anatomy is different than adults, making it harder to clear mucus,” explains Dr. Rebekah Diamond, a pediatric hospitalist in New York City and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Columbia University.
Since babies are unable to clear their nasal passages on their own, you need to help them out. First, though, make sure they are just congested and not having a serious breathing issue. “Real trouble breathing is signaled by fast breathing, using muscles between ribs or throat to breathe, nose flaring, and a whistling sound when breathing in,” Diamond says. If you notice any of this happening, she urges you to seek urgent medical care immediately.
If you can tell that your baby is uncomfortable due to their nasal congestion, there are a few things you can do to help make breathing easier for them. It’s important to try to clear that congestion out of their nasal passages, and if it is dry, you’ll need to loosen things up to help a baby breathe with a cold. “Making the bathroom steamy from a hot shower, then sitting in the room with your baby can help,” Diamond suggests. “The steam can help break up secretions and make it easier to cough them up or swallow them.”
Another option is to use something like a NoseFrida ‘snot sucker’ you’ve likely heard about. “Place one saline drop in each nostril and then suction after,” recommends Dr. Zeyad Baker of Baker Pediatrics, who has over a decade of experience in pediatric medicine. With devices like this, you are literally sucking the snot out of their nose. It sounds gross, but it’s effective and it’s not as horrible as it sounds — there’s a blockage in the tube so nothing gets near your mouth.
“Suction devices like these are popular and can be safe if used correctly,” Diamond says. “They work by sucking out excess mucus and helping babies breathe more comfortably.”
A cool mist humidifier in the baby’s room will create some much-needed moisture in the air, which will help loosen congestion and make it easier for them to breathe, Baker suggests.
How to help baby sleep with a cold
The best thing you can do to get rid of your little one’s cold is to help them get some rest, Diamond notes. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done when they’re sick. Following the above tips to help them breathe better will, in turn, hopefully help them sleep better as well.
As tempting as it may be, don’t buy into any miracle cures. Babies can’t have cough or cold medication like older kids and adults can. You might notice a lot of “all-natural” baby cough and cold medicines on the market, but both Baker and Diamond say to avoid them because they are unregulated and ineffective. “They have no proven benefit and all the same potential for side effects as other traditional cough medicines. They can have dangerous ingredients and serious effects, and there’s no need to try them.”
If your little one is over one-year-old, she recommends giving them a spoonful of honey — but, remember, no honey under age 1 as it can lead to serious harm and even death in infants. “Honey is a scientifically proven cough suppressant in children over the age of one,” Diamond says. “It can never be given to children under one-year-old. It also can feel soothing on the throat.”
If you think that your baby is uncomfortable because of an elevated temperature, Diamond says that you can give them the proper dose of infant Tylenol or Motrin, as long as you’ve cleared that with your pediatrician.
At the end of the day, a bad cold is going to make your baby uncomfortable, and their sleep might be affected for a few days. The best you can do is follow the above tips and be patient. And keep a close eye on them. “Don’t delay care if you’re worried,” Diamond says. “Serious breathing problems should be quickly evaluated by a pediatrician, so follow your instinct and don’t hesitate to reach out.” Never be embarrassed to call the doctor — even if it’s multiple times a day — and remember, extra snuggles never hurt.
Dr. Rebekah Diamond, M.D., a pediatric hospitalist in New York City and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Columbia University, author of Parent Like A Pediatrician