When Your Baby Has a Cold

Medically Reviewed by Amita Shroff, MD on June 21, 2022
4 min read

Little noses get a lot of colds. Babies can catch eight or more during their first year alone, especially if they are in day care or have siblings who bring home germs from school. Though these sniffles and sneezes in babies are rarely serious, they're tough on parents, too -- and one of the biggest reasons for pediatrician visits. When you know how to help your child feel better and when to call the doctor, you can feel more confident until the cold is over.

Babies get so many colds because their immune system isn't yet ready to fight off the 100 or so viruses that cause these infections. The cold virus spreads through the air when someone who's sick coughs or sneezes. It also lands on surfaces such as toys and tables. When babies touch these surfaces and then put their hands in their mouths -- which they do a lot -- they give the cold virus an easy entry route.

Babies often pick up colds at day care. Or they can catch it from older brothers and sisters who bring the virus home from school -- or from grown-ups who shook hands with someone who should have stayed home from work.

Babies start to show signs of a cold about 1 to 3 days after they're infected. Symptoms in young children can include:

  • Stuffy nose
  • Runny nose, which should be clear at first but may turn yellow or green
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Fussiness
  • Fatigue
  • Reduced appetite
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Fever
  • Vomiting, diarrhea

Your child should start to feel better in about 7 to 10 days.

Colds don't need to be treated. They usually go away on their own after a few days. Antibiotics won't work because they kill bacteria, and in this case, viruses are to blame.

You’ll naturally want to calm your baby's symptoms. But don't give over-the-counter cough and cold medicines to infants and toddlers. These products don't work well in kids under 6 years, and they can cause dangerous side effects in young children. The FDA advises against using them at all in children younger than 4. 

To bring down a fever and make your child more comfortable, you can use acetaminophen (Children's Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Children's Motrin or Advil) if they're over 6 months old. Read the package to make sure you give the right dose for their weight and age.

Never give a child any medicine that contains aspirin. It can raise the risk for a rare but serious disease called Reye's syndrome.

To help your little one feel better, let them get lots of rest and try one of these home remedies:

Extra fluids. Nurse your infant more often or give them Pedialyte. In babies over 6 months, you can also give water and 100% fruit juice. The added fluid will prevent dehydration and keep your child’s nose and mouth moist.

Spray saline and suck out mucus. If your baby has trouble breathing through a stuffed nose, spray a few drops of a saline (saltwater) solution (commonly available in pharmacies) into each nostril to loosen the mucus. Then use a bulb syringe to remove the mucus. Squeeze the bulb and then place the tip into your child's nostril. Release the bulb to gently suction out the mucus. Wash the tip of the syringe with soap and water after each use. If you make your own saline solution, use distilled water or boiled tap water.

Turn on a humidifier. A cool-mist humidifier will add moisture to the air and keep your baby's nose from drying out. Wash out the machine after each use to prevent bacteria and mold buildup.

If your child has croup, inhaling warm steam in the bathroom or exposure to cool air may help with the barky cough symptoms.

Unfortunately, you can't prevent every cold, especially during the winter months when these viruses often circulate. But you can lower your baby's risk of getting sick with these tips:

  • Ask anyone who's sick to stay away from your home.
  • Keep your baby away from crowded places where there are lots of germs.
  • Wash your hands often during the day. Ask anyone who holds your baby to also wash their hands.
  • Clean your baby's toys often with soap and water.
  • Don't let anyone use your baby's cup, utensils, or towels.
  • Tell older children to cough or sneeze into a tissue or their elbow, instead of into the air.
  • Don't let anyone smoke near your child. Cigarette smoke can make your baby more likely to get sick.

You don't need to call a doctor for a cold if your baby is over 3 months old. In younger infants, make the call when symptoms start -- especially if your baby has a fever. Cold-like symptoms might actually signal a more serious illness, such as pneumonia or an ear infection. You’ll feel better if you check on it.

No matter what your child's age, call the doctor if you notice any of these more serious symptoms:

  • Fever of 102 F or higher
  • Trouble breathing
  • Not wanting to eat or drink
  • Signs of dehydration, such as no tears or fewer wet diapers than usual
  • Unusual sleepiness

Also call if your baby doesn't get better after a week or so, or if the symptoms get worse.