Healthy young babies often sound congested, may be noisy breathers, and tend to sneeze frequently. Does this mean they have a cold? How do you know the difference in normal baby congestion and congestion from being sick?
Normal baby congestion
Infants tend to be snuffly little people. Baby congestion is a problem that almost all new mothers face. Here’s why: babies are “obligate nose breathers,” in order to keep their mouths available for sucking and eating. The nasal passages help keep tiny noses clear by producing lots of thin clear mucus secretions. It is this overproduction of mucus that cause newborn baby congestion. Clear or yellowish thin nasal mucus from the nose does not mean your baby has a cold. During the day, your baby is upright and you may see drips from the nose, but at night, when your baby lays on his back, the mucus collects in the back of the nose or throat, leading to those normal but concerning congested or whistling sounds. If your baby is breathing just fine from his nose, all is well and nothing should be done. If baby congestion interferes with his ability to comfortably eat and breathe at the same time, then you may choose to use the saline drops and bulb syringe to help loosen and remove the mucus. As you can imagine, the congested baby probably won’t be too thrilled with this process!
How to clear your baby’s nose
Unlike older kids and adults, a baby can’t just blow their nose into a tissue, so if they’re really uncomfortable with excess baby congestion, you can help to clear the mucus out of the nose. You’ll need a nasal bulb syringe or suction device, and a bottle of saline nose drops. Always use a few drops (not a spray) of the saline before using the suction – this helps to loosen and thin the mucus, making it easier to remove and prevents irritation. If the drops of saline cause your baby to sneeze, then your job is done! Otherwise, squeeze your nasal bulb syringe away from your baby, then place the tip just at the entrance to your baby’s nostril (don’t insert it into the nostril) and release the bulb. The mucus, loosened by the saline drops, will be drawn out by the suction, releiving your baby of newborn congestion. Repeat in the other nostril.
Clearing your baby’s nose using saline and the bulb syringe should not be a daily activity, but there will be times when you feel the need to help out in an attempt to relieve baby congestion. In the future, when your baby has a cold, you’ll see an increase in thicker green or yellow mucus, and you’ll need to clear his nose with the saline and bulb syringe several times a day, before eating or sleeping. If your baby can eat or suck with his mouth and breathe easily from his nose, it’s best to leave his nose alone.
Wash the bulb syringe after each use, both inside and out. If your syringe doesn’t open for easy cleaning, then draw up hot soapy water into the syringe, shake it, and release it. Repeat several times, rinse, and allow to air dry.
Why do babies sneeze so often? It’s completely normal, and in fact, is due to a reflex as opposed to regular baby congestion! When moving from a darker to a brighter light environment, you can expect your baby to sneeze, often in twos or threes! This is the body’s self-cleaning function to keep a baby’s nose clear to eat. By the time a child is old enough to “blow” their nose if congested, the light reflex begins to go away. About 10% of adults never lose the light reflex – these are the people who sneeze repeatedly after leaving a dark movie theater into the bright lobby!
What about humidifiers? When the weather gets cold and the heat goes on indoors, the air begins to dry out inside, which makes baby congestion worse. If you have a snuffly baby suffering from baby congestion, try using a cool-mist humidifier in the room where your baby sleeps. This will help keep nasal secretions loose and also prevents other types of dry-air-related night waking.