When you’re a new parent — or an experienced parent with a new kid — it’s normal to panic every time your baby shows any sign that they might be even the slightest bit unwell. Sure, we know babies are resilient, but also it takes a few months before their little immune systems are up and running, so we don’t want to take any chances. The expectation is that new parents (though let’s be real: most frequently, mothers) find the happy medium between being appropriately aware of and concerned about signs their baby might be sick, but also not getting too worried about every sneeze or wheeze. It’s a delicate balance.
One of the more common ways little ones give us clues about their health is through their baby coughs. And, as we’re sure you’ve noticed, there are several different types of baby and newborn coughs to decipher. Here’s what each type means, what to do for a baby or toddler with a cough, and when to worry about a baby cough.
Is it normal for a baby to cough?
Yes, baby coughs are totally normal and could mean a variety of different things. Here are some examples of baby coughs and what they mean, courtesy of Boston Children’s Hospital:
- Babies 6-months-old or younger: If accompanied by a cold, wheezing and/or difficulty breathing, it’s potentially a sign of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
- “Barking” cough: Usually caused by croup brought on by allergies, change in temperature at night, or most commonly a viral upper respiratory infection.
- “Whooping” cough: The “whooping” sound (which actually sounds more like “hoop”) happens after the cough, when the child tries to take in a deep breath after a coughing fit. Potentially a symptom of pertussis (whooping cough).
- Cough + Wheezing: Something may be partially blocking the lower airway, like an object that got stuck, or swelling from respiratory infections like bronchiolitis or pneumonia, or could be a sign of asthma.
- Stridor: Noisy, harsh breathing (sometimes almost like a musical sound) that’s heard when a child breathes in. Most often caused by swelling of the upper airway, usually from viral croup; could also be a sign of epiglottitis or something stuck in their airway.
- Sudden cough: Something may be caught in their airway, or a food/drink “went down the wrong pipe.”
- Nighttime coughs: Nasal and/or sinus congestion; potentially a sign of asthma.
What can I do for my baby’s cough?
If you’re unsure what to do for a baby with a cough, the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles has a few suggestions of ways to treat it at home. These include:
- Keeping their nasal passages as clear as possible
- If baby has been coughing, their throat may probably be a little sore, so stick to really soft and smooth food items (If your child is still breastfeeding or drinking formula, this doesn’t apply to you)
- Using a cool-mist humidifier in your child’s bedroom
- Making sure they drink plenty of fluids
- Giving them Children’s Tylenol or ibuprofen to help keep them comfortable if they also have a fever
- With your doctor’s permission, give your kiddo saline drops (This will help break down mucus or build up in the nasal passage that may be causing them to cough)
One thing you should not give your baby (or toddler or child) is over-the-counter cough medicine — unless you’ve been specifically instructed to do so by your pediatrician. That’s because the American Academy of Pediatrics has warned that they aren’t effective for young children, and could be dangerous to a baby or toddler.
When should you worry about a baby cough?
As we’ve discussed, not every baby cough or wheeze is something to be concerned about. But when should you worry about a baby cough? According to the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles and Boston Children’s Hospital, these are some of the situations when you’re going to want to contact your pediatrician about your baby’s cough:
- It starts when a newborn is only a few weeks old
- The baby’s face, lips, or tongue are a blue or dusky color
- There’s a “whooping” sound when the baby breathes after coughing
- They’re coughing up blood (that’s not from a nosebleed)
- It’s accompanied by a fever lasting more than five days
- It lasts for eight weeks
- It gets worse by the third week
- It comes with difficulty in breathing or labored breathing
- It comes with night sweats, weight loss, and/or coughing up blood
- It’s a wet or dry, hacking cough without wheezing or fast breathing, that occurs during the day or at night
And, of course, if none of the characteristics above apply, but you’re worried about your baby’s cough, you can always call their pediatrician’s office to ask about it, and whether it warrants a trip to see the doctor.
Can teething cause a cough?
When baby is teething, they produce a lot of saliva which can pool in their mouths and slip down their throats. This can cause them to cough or choke up. During a baby’s teething stage, they’re also more prone to sickness, so they may catch a cold or fever that may cause coughing.
What is a fake baby cough?
As strange as it may sound, babies will sometimes fake cough. They do this because they learn it usually leads to them getting attention. This kind of behavior rarely lasts, but to stop your little one from forming this attention-seeking habit, ignore it or give brief acknowledgment, like a smile or nod.
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