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Congestion and Baby Sleep

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Dr. Steven Goudy

M.D., M.B.A

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Did you know babies can only breathe through their nose?! It’s true! For the first 12 months of life, babies can’t breathe comfortably through their mouths. Because of this, they can scare parents by making strange snorting, congestion-type noises in their sleep. It may ease your mind to know that these sounds are not always cause for concern. Let's talk about congestion and baby sleep.

What are these noises all about?anchor

As babies inhale, their little noses filter and humidify the air. By the time the air reaches their lungs, it’s clean (free of dust, bugs, and old cheerios!), and the temperature of this air matches their body temperature. When congestion messes with this process, issues can occur in lower airways that result in coughing and dry mucus.  

What causes mucus, anyway?anchor

Mucus (or snot) may be gross, but it’s useful. It acts as a sticky trap to keep dust, bacteria, and foreign substances from getting into the lower airways. 

Increased snot and congestion can be caused by a virus, allergies, or something as simple as dryness in the air. Viral illnesses like colds are the most common culprit. Most babies experience about 6-10 colds a year. Allergies in young babies are less common but can be triggered by food or indoor allergens, like mold. Snot resulting from allergies is more likely to be thin with a clear, watery appearance. 

How can I help my baby breathe?anchor

If your baby is stuffy, be sure to clear their nasal passages before each feeding—and in between each feeding as needed. Start by using an over-the-counter (unmedicated) saline spray to loosen the nasal mucus and reduce swelling in the tissues. Let the saline sit and absorb for a few minutes.  Then, you’ll need the assistance of a suction device like a simple bulb syringe or a more advanced option like the NozeBot because your baby can’t blow his nose yet. (If you're interested in purchasing the NozeBot, use code CARA20 for $20 off.)

Safety Tip: Parents often ask if they should allow their congested babies to sleep in an elevated position to help them breathe better. This is NOT recommended. Research tells us that a firm, flat surface (in a crib, bassinet, or play yard) is the only safe option for unsupervised sleep, even during an illness. Not sure how to help your sick baby sleep? Read this blog all about baby sleep and sickness.

When should I be concerned about my baby’s breathing?anchor

Great question! Here are 3 things to be watching for while your baby is congested:

1. High-pitched soundsanchor

Most noises that babies make are low-pitched snoring sounds. However, if your baby is making a high-pitched sound, you should go see your baby’s doctor. You don’t need to panic, but don’t wait to see if it will just disappear on its own. Here’s why: this high-pitched sound can be caused by soft structures and tissues that obstruct breathing. It could also be due to croup, which is a serious viral respiratory infection.

2. Signs of Dehydrationanchor

Nasal congestion can shift your baby’s natural suck-swallow-breathe rhythm. Because of this, baby’s sleep can be disrupted, and your baby may not eat as well either. For a baby who is congested and not eating well, be sure to watch for signs of dehydration: few wet diapers, no tears when crying, and excessive tiredness (more than usual). If you do see these symptoms, it’s time to go visit your pediatrician.

3. Congestion that lasts longer than 2 weeksanchor

If your child’s congestion lasts longer than about two weeks, their discomfort and sounds of congestion may be symptoms of something a bit more serious and require extra medical intervention. Be sure to check in with your doctor if you’re concerned about ongoing congestion and your baby.

No matter what sounds you hear on your baby monitor at night, trust your gut. Don’t hesitate to consult your pediatrician’s office if the sounds of slumber don’t sit right with you. And check out this blog all about baby sleep and sickness.

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