Anyone who has ever been around babies has probably noticed that babies tend to have stuffy noses. From crusties around their noses and snot bubbles to snail trails down their chins, babies can be little snot factories. It's just a fact of life. Why, though?
The truth is that most babies will have a snotty nose pretty regularly. Since congestion is such a common symptom though, it can be hard to understand what the cause of your baby's mucus problem is. As adults, we tend to associate congestions with two main causes: an illness like a cold or irritants such as seasonal allergies. Baby noses and sinuses though, can and do get irritated (and mucousy) for a variety of reasons.
Why does my baby have a stuffy nose?
Did you know that newborns have different breathing patterns than older humans? In fact, newborns must breathe through their noses for their first crucial months. They don't have the ability to breathe through their mouths at all. Moreover, their tiny nasal passages (and their tiny noses!) are so small that they can sound snuffly even when their noses aren't clogged.
Understandably then, it can get pretty uncomfortable for them to have bad congestion. Newborns even have different breathing patterns. If you listen to your baby breathe, you may notice that the pattern is different from an adult breathing. You'll often hear little pauses, big inhales, and little shallow breaths in no particular rhythm. This changeable breathing pattern can cause small changes in pressure in their sinuses, which can cause some irritation in their nasal passages and sinuses. These pressure changes can also help clear their passages by breaking up little blockages and bubbles.
Your baby may be even too young to clear their noses with a big snort or sniff since that skill takes several months to develop. Without that ability, babies are less able to remove mucous blockages from their sinus passages easily. Sneezing helps, but often doesn't force out the mucous in one go.
Has your baby ever vomitted, or spilled all over you? Well, sometimes that spit up (called reflux in the medical community) can travel up their nasal passages on the way back up. As you might imagine, this irritation can cause some mild swelling in baby's sinuses. This swelling, while not dangerous, can cause the baby to be a bit stuffy as their mucous membranes secrete lubricating and soothing mucous.
Other common causes for stuffy noses in babies are airborne irritants. Particles like dust or pollen, smoke from cigarettes or exhaust from motors, and chemicals like fragrances found in cleaning supplies and perfumes can all cause baby's nose to react. That because baby noses (like adults') are lined with fine hairs and mucous membranes that work together to trap these types of irritants before they get to the lungs. The resulting mucous is usually thin and clear, so babies can normally clear it easily. You may notice that this process increases not only mucus dribbles and snot bubbles but the stuffy sounds that babies make as they breathe.
A special type of irritant, dry air can cause your baby to produce more mucous than normal. That's because the mucous membranes are working harder than usual to keep the baby's nasal passages moist. When the mucous escapes the baby's nose, it can dry into hard crusties. Try removing these with a baby nasal aspirator. Because babies will be losing more moisture than normal when they exhale (and moist air leaves their lungs), make sure that infants are regularly feeding and babies old enough for water and juices are getting regular hydration.
Viral Illnesses Like Colds and the Flu
Least common (but still a familiar occurrence) is an illness. Most babies will be sick half-a-dozen times or more in their first year, so you should expect for your baby to get a snotty nose from a cold. Unless your baby is showing signs of distress like listlessness, refusal to eat, or extreme fever, you're best off treating your baby's illness at home. Stuffy noses that come from colds and the flu don't have the thick, green mucous you see in adulthood – their nasal passages usually produce thin clear mucous.
How to Treat A Runny Nose in Infants and Babies
Your first instinct when you see your baby's nose start to dribble is probably to fix it. The truth is, though, that you're unlikely to solve for your baby's stuffy nose. Unless the cause is easy to identify and remove, like cigarette smoke, your best bet is to simply have patience and clean wipes. Remove mucous from your baby's upper lip with a soft cloth like a bib or spit-up towel instead of harsh tissues. Babies can benefit from using a combination of saline drops and an aspirator to gently remove built-up mucous before they feed. This will make it easier on them to get their milk or formula down, as their nose will be clear enough to breathe through easily. Parents can also try adding aromatic essential oils to a humidifier to help clear up the sinuses and moisten their nasal passages. Babies with severe congestion and coughing can also try a soothing chest rub, which can help soothe coughs and clear their airways. These are great suggestions to try before you seek a medicine for a runny nose.
Whatever you do, consult your paediatrician or pharmacist before medicating your baby. Babies are especially vulnerable to many over-the-counter medicines because of their very small nasal passages. If you suspect that your baby is very sick or having trouble breathing, contact a healthcare professional immediately, as this could be a symptom of severe distress.