Baby congestion can be frustrating for both you and your little one. It often causes discomfort and lack of sleep, but it can also indicate an illness that can be dangerous if not resolved. But some of the usual congestion remedies aren’t great options for a baby (neti pot anyone?).
In this article, we’ll cover:
- What causes baby congestion (so you can get to the root cause!)
- Signs of baby congestion
- Plus, the best natural remedies for baby congestion
What Causes Baby Congestion?
There can be a number of reasons for a congested baby. According to Mayo Clinic, anything that irritates or inflames the nose can cause congestion. Babies airways are small and immature, so they have more trouble clearing their sinuses. Even a little bit of mucus can cause noticeable congestion with such a tiny nose.
Although congestion can be frustrating, it means the body is doing its job because mucus and inflammation are the body’s way of removing germs and allergens. But by getting to the root of the problem, you can help your baby’s stuffy nose go bye-bye.
Congested babies who aren’t eating solids yet may have an allergic reaction to something in breastmilk. Eggs, cow’s milk, and peanuts are the top offenders, causing nearly 80 percent of allergies. Rash, hives, eczema, and chronic diaper rash are other signs your little one may not be tolerating certain foods. Fortunately, not all allergies are severe and many children will outgrow common ones (like milk and egg allergies). Get the full scoop on managing food allergies in babies here.
Babies can also have allergies or sensitivities to milk- or soy-based formula. There are some pre-made formulas that are easier to digest and more nutrient dense for little ones. A homemade infant formula is also an option. Read more about the best infant formulas here.
Bad air quality
Babies lungs and respiratory systems are immature, so they’re more sensitive to irritants in the air. Cooking smoke, cigarette smoke, dry air, scented candles, and air fresheners can all make breathing harder for baby and cause or worsen baby congestion.
Here are some ways to make sure your baby (and you!) are breathing clean, healthy air:
- Use pure beeswax candles instead of artificially scented ones
- Make your own room spray with water and essential oils
- Use a vent when cooking to avoid cooking smoke buildup
- Keep baby away from cigarette smoke or objects that have been exposed to smoke and have nicotine residue on them
- Avoid artificially fragranced soap, cleaners, or laundry detergent (try these safe natural cleaning products)
- Use an air purifier
The common cold or flu
If your child isn’t chronically congested, then their symptoms could be a result of the common cold. Support their immune system with breastmilk, probiotic supplements, and healthy food if they’re on solids.
If baby is exclusively breastfed, you can take the following supplements, which will benefit baby through breast milk:
- Elderberry, a proven immune stimulant that helps reduce the severity and duration of colds.
- Food-based vitamin C, like camu camu powder, which has 1000% of the RDA of this vitamin. It’s also high in antioxidants.
- Vitamins D & K. Take up to 10,000 IU of vitamin D per day combined with a vitamin K2 supplement until cold subsides. Try these easy-to-take drops and these capsules.
- Probiotics: A healthy immune system starts with a healthy gut. Try these probiotics and increase consumption of fermented foods, like sauerkraut, yogurt, and kimchi.
(Keep reading for more cold and flu remedies that help relieve baby congestion.)
Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)
RSV looks like the common cold—one of the biggest signs is lots of mucus and congestion. RSV is common and usually goes away on its own in 1 to 2 weeks, but can escalate into a serious condition quickly. When this happens, the virus may turn into bronchiolitis, inflammation deep in the lungs that causes a severe cough, shallow breathing, and wheezing. (source) These symptoms require immediate medical attention.
Decoding Baby’s Mucus
Yes, snot is gross, but hold up before throwing that tissue in the trash! Snot, aka mucus, tells us a lot about what’s going on and why baby is congested. (source)
- Clear, colorless mucus is normal. More than usual may mean allergies or a mild cold.
- Stringy mucus usually means points to an allergy.
- White mucus means an infection is beginning.
- Yellow mucus means your baby is sick, but the white blood cells are fighting the infection.
- Green mucus means white blood cells are working very hard to fight an infection.
- Pink or red mucus is from an irritated nose, often caused by air that’s too dry (like in winter or high elevations).
- Brown mucus means baby is breathing polluted air.
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Signs of Baby Congestion
A congested baby may have different symptoms than an adult. They also can’t communicate what’s going on, so it’s important to be aware of any symptoms they’re experiencing. Your baby may have congestion in their nose, deeper down in their lungs/chest, or both.
Nasal congestion symptoms:
- Thick or discolored nasal mucus
- Snoring or noisy breathing
- Trouble eating (pulling off the breast/bottle and coughing, choking, or crying)
Chest congestion symptoms:
- Rapid or shallow breathing
How to Help a Congested Baby
It’s important that your baby gets enough fluids to thin mucus and clear congestion. Babies who are old enough can have water, while younger babies should be getting enough breastmilk or formula. It’s also important to watch for signs of an allergy to something in their breastmilk or formula that could be causing the congestion.
As weird as it sounds, some breastmilk in the nose can help with congestion. The fluid thins the mucus for easier removal. Breastmilk also has antibodies that fight infection and can provide long-lasting immunity. (source) To do it, put a few drops of breastmilk in the nose. Wait a bit, then use a nasal aspirator or NoseFrida to suck the loosened mucus out.
If you’re not breastfeeding, then a simple saline solution will also work. If you’re using a premade spray, be sure there are no added medications—just salt and water. After the saline is in baby’s nose, wait a bit, then use a nasal aspirator or NoseFrida to suck the mucus out. You could also try Xlear, which can help to build up the nose microbiome.
Keep baby upright
Keep baby upright while both awake and asleep—gravity helps mucus drain out of the nose. This is especially helpful to help baby breathe better at night. You can hold your baby while they nap, or elevate the head of their crib. Place pillows or a crib wedge pillow, like this one, UNDER the mattress so baby’s head is higher than their feet. Never put pillows in the crib with your baby, as this increases the risk of suffocation!
A cool mist humidifier helps thin mucus and moisten dry nasal passages. Just be sure the machine and cords aren’t where baby can reach it. A humidifier also needs regular cleaning to prevent mold and mildew growth within the machine.
Warm bath or steam shower
Run a hot shower, close the door to the bathroom, and let baby breathe in the steam. The warm steam will help loosen and expel hardened or thick mucus. Alternatively, place baby in a warm bath. If your baby has a cold or the flu, add immune-boosting and anti-viral herbs to the water. Try:
- Thyme, an anti-viral that helps expel congestion, especially from the lungs and chest. (source)
- English ivy, studies show this plant—an ingredient in some children’s natural cough medicine—help treat pediatric cough in 96 percent of cases.
- Lavender and chamomile, which are calming and soothing to help baby sleep.
- Epsom salts, which provide magnesium for better muscle function and detox. Studies like this one and this one have shown it’s an effective muscle relaxer and helps improve breathing.
To make an herb bath, put 1 tablespoon of the dried herb in a tea ball, soak in hot water, and put in bath water. Repeat up to six times per day.
Garlic is a natural antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, and fights congestion. It’s also been traditionally used as an earache remedy. Rub garlic oil or salve onto baby’s chest to help break up congestion. (source, source) Rub garlic oil on baby’s feet. For older children, rub garlic oil directly on the chest.
Maty’s chest rub
Although many rely on Vick’s for congestion, it’s not approved for babies. Even many natural chest rubs use essential oils that are too harsh for infants. Maty’s chest rub uses a gentle combination of herbs that are safe for babies 3 months and up.
To use Maty’s chest rub:
- For older infants: Rub on the chest and bottoms of the feet.
- For younger infants: Apply to the bottoms of the feet only.
This time-honored traditional remedy relieves chest congestion, soothes coughs, and fights infections. Though studies are limited, herbal practitioners and moms alike have found that onions warm the chest, thin mucus, and help the body cough mucus out.
To make an onion poultice:
- Place chopped, steamed onions into a piece of cheesecloth or muslin and tie closed. (Some prefer to use raw onion).
- Place the warm (not hot!) onion poultice on baby’s chest. You can wrap your baby in a warm towel or blanket and hold them. Another option for young babies is to put the poultice on then swaddle them.
- Leave the poultice on for about 30 minutes, then discard. Repeat this process several times per day.
This homeopathic remedy comes in a liquid form that’s easy to administer. It’s safe for babies 6 months and older and won’t make your baby tired. Coldcalm helps relieve general cold symptoms, like congestion, coughing, and the general yucky feeling that comes along with sickness. Get Coldcalm here.
Also nicknamed the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D is necessary for a healthy immune system. Babies can safely take 400 IUs per day, and breastfeeding mamas can take 6,400 IUs per day to pass it along in their breastmilk. Sunshine is the best source of vitamin D, but sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate and a supplement is necessary. (source) A vitamin D3/K2 supplement like this one helps keep minerals in balance.
Just like adults, baby’s gut can use a helping hand during times of sickness and congestion. Opt for products with the strains B. bifidum, B infantis, and L reuteri. Here’s everything you need to know about baby probiotics, plus which ones I recommend.
This nasal spray thins mucus like saline, but has added xylitol to support the microbiome. Studies show xylitol washes improve nasal inflammation and reduce harmful bacteria significantly more than saline alone. Get Xlear nasal spray here. Use the spray along with the NoseFrida and alternate with saline, if desired.
Misalignment of the vertebrae (especially those in the neck) can affect the sinuses, causing congestion. A chiropractic adjustment helps drain nasal passages and stimulate the nerves that go to the sinus cavities to speed healing. (source) This study also suggests a spinal adjustment benefits the immune system.
Be sure to find a chiropractor that has experience treating children and infants—their immature bodies require different care than adults.
Can I Treat Baby Congestion With Traditional Cold Medicine?
The FDA warns against cough medicine for babies, since it’s not safe or effective at this age. Little ones shouldn’t get cough and cold medicine until they’re at least 2 years old. Over-the-counter cough meds can slow breathing and some even contain opiates that aren’t approved for anyone under 18.
When to See a Doctor for Baby Congestion
If you ever feel uneasy, like something just isn’t right, it’s never a bad idea to check in with your pediatrician. According to Stanford Children’s Hospital, here are some symptoms that indicate baby’s condition is serious. Seek immediate medical attention if you see these signs:
- Flaring nostrils
- Chest sinking
- Breathing hard and fast (more than 60 breaths per minute)
- Refusing food
- Blue tint to skin, lips, or nails
- Not wetting diapers, or doesn’t have enough wet diapers for their age
- High fever
- Excessive fussiness or lethargy
- Thick, yellow mucus
It’s best to check in with your pediatrician if your baby doesn’t have the above urgent symptoms, but doesn’t improve after a few days of natural remedies. A baby’s immune system is fragile and symptoms can escalate quickly.
How About You?
What remedies have you tried for baby congestion? Any tips we missed? Let us know in the comments below!