How to Treat Your Baby’s Stuffy Nose

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on November 27, 2023
4 min read

Your little one is congested. What should you do?

In a child age 3 or under, 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 starting to build up their immunity to common viruses. But there are many other potential causes of congestion.

You’re also limited by the treatments that are OK to use in children younger than 4. You shouldn’t turn to cold medicines for relief. They can be dangerous for infants and toddlers.

Fortunately, there are plenty of safe and effective treatments that you can try.

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 happens when blood vessels and tissue in the nasal cavity fill up with too much fluid. It can make it hard to sleep and lead to problems like a sinus infection (sinusitis). Your baby may also have trouble feeding if they are congested.

The color of mucus doesn't reveal whether it's a viral or bacterial infection

The cause of congestion could instead be an allergy, which would require a doctor visit and possibly an allergy test. Congestion can even happen if a piece of food or another object gets lodged in your child’s nose. This, too, needs a visit to the emergency room or your pediatrician. Don’t try to remove anything but mucus from your baby’s nose on your own.

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

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

If you use drops, place two drops in each nostril to loosen the mucus inside. Then use a suction bulb immediately afterward to withdraw the saline and mucus. You can place a rolled up towel under your baby’s shoulders so you can gently tilt the head back a little to make sure the drops get up into the nose.

Squeeze the bulb before you place it in the nose. That way, when you release the bulb, it will pull out mucus from inside. If you squeeze when the bulb is already inside a nostril, it will give off a puff of air that could push the mucus farther into the nasal cavity.

Squeeze out any mucus inside the bulb onto a tissue.

Do this about 15 minutes or so before you feed your child and before bedtime. This will help your baby breathe more easily when they nurse, take a bottle, or go down to sleep.

Some saline solutions also contain medicine. Avoid these. Plain saline drops or sprays will work fine. Just make sure to wash and dry the suction bulb after each use.

There are other ways to moisten the nasal passages.

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

To avoid mold and bacteria growth, change the water every day, and clean and dry the vaporizer, according to the machine’s instructions.

You may also try this tried-and-true solution: Take your baby into the shower. Let your shower and bathroom get nice and steamy while you hold your baby close for a few minutes. This can help to clear your baby’s head before bedtime.

Don’t use hot water in a humidifier, since it can cause burns.

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

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