How to Treat a Stuffy Nose in Babies and Toddlers

Your toddler is congested. What should you do?

In a child 3 years or younger, this can be a challenge. For starters, it’s not always obvious what’s causing that stuffy nose. Infants and toddlers often catch colds because they are just beginning to develop their immunity to common viruses. But there are many other potential causes of congestion.

You are also limited by the treatments that can be used in children under 4 years old. You shouldn’t turn to cold medicine for relief. They can be dangerous for infants and toddlers.

Fortunately, there are many safe and effective treatments you can try.

The first step

Before you or your pediatrician can decide on a treatment plan, you need to know what’s causing that stuffy nose. And there are many possible causes.

Nasal congestion occurs when the blood vessels and tissues of the nasal cavity fill up with too much fluid. This can make it difficult to sleep and lead to problems like sinus infection (sinusitis). Your baby may also have difficulty feeding if he is congested.

The color of the mucus does not reveal whether it is a viral or bacterial infection.

The cause of the congestion could instead be an allergy, which would require a visit to the doctor and possibly an allergy test. Congestion can even occur if a piece of food or other object gets lodged in your child’s nose. This too requires a visit to the emergency room or to your pediatrician. Do not attempt to remove anything other than mucus from your baby’s nose yourself.

Sometimes congestion can be a sign of a more serious problem. A stuffy nose from a cold can often be treated with saline drops, time, and a little TLC. If there are other symptoms, especially fever and thick, yellow mucus, call your pediatrician as soon as possible.

Safe treatments

One of the safest and most effective ways to help clear a baby’s congestion is to use a saline (salt water) spray or nose drops. These products are available without a prescription.

If you are using drops, place two drops in each nostril to loosen the mucus inside. Then use a suction bulb immediately afterwards to remove the saline solution and mucus. You can place a rolled up towel under your baby’s shoulders so that you can slightly tilt their head back slightly to make sure the drops get into their nose.

Squeeze the bulb before placing it in the nose. This way, when you release the bulb, it will pull out the mucus from inside. If you squeeze while the bulb is already inside a nostril, it will release a puff of air which could push mucus further into the nasal cavity.

Squeeze the mucus inside the blister onto a tissue.

Do this about 15 minutes before feeding your child and before bedtime. This will help your baby breathe easier when nursing, taking a bottle or falling asleep.

Some saline solutions also contain medications. Avoid these. Ordinary saline drops or sprays will work well. Just be sure to wash and dry the suction bulb after each use.

Hot Solutions

There are other ways to moisten the nasal passages.

A vaporizer or humidifier that releases a cool mist into the room is generally safe, as long as you keep it out of your baby’s reach. Place it close enough for the mist to reach your baby while they sleep or while you’re in the room snuggling or playing.

To prevent the growth of mold and bacteria, change the water daily, clean and dry the vaporizer according to the machine’s instructions.

You can also try this proven solution: take your baby in the shower. Let your shower and bathroom get nice and steamy while you hold your baby close for a few minutes. This can help clear your baby’s head before bedtime.

Do not use hot water in a humidifier as it can cause burns.

3 more tips

Follow some of these other steps to help clear your baby’s stuffy nose:

  1. Place a pillow under the mattress so that there is a slight angle with your child’s head higher than the feet. This can help drain mucus from the sinuses. If your child is still a baby in a crib, don’t. You should keep pillows and other items out of their sleeping area to reduce the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). Most pediatricians recommend doing this until your child is 2 years old.
  2. Encourage your child to drink more water. Fluids help thin the mucus, but don’t force it. Even if your child just drinks a little more water throughout the day, it will help.
  3. If your toddler is old enough, teach him to blow his nose. To show them how, exhale through their nose. Place a tissue near your nostrils so your baby can see the air moving the tissue as you exhale. Ask them to blow into a handkerchief in the same way.

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