How to Treat Your Baby’s Cough

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How to Treat Your Baby’s Cough

It can be very scary watching your baby suffer with a cough. I have three children who have suffered with asthma and a baby who had RSV at just eleven days old. I know firsthand how frightening it can be. I also know how even a mild cough can keep your child from resting at night. I am going to share the answers to some of the most common cough questions I get, as well as ways you can help relieve your baby’s cough at home. While I am a pediatric nurse, this article is not intended to replace the advice of your pediatrician.

treat baby cough

What cough medicine can I give my baby?

There we have it– the number one, most frequently asked cough question. I get it. I really do. As parents, we want to be able to fix things, and we want to be able to fix them right away. Unfortunately, we cannot give cough medicine to babies and toddlers. Cough medicines are not approved for this age group. Not only that, they don’t work.

Let’s pretend for a second that cough medicines were proven safe and effective for small children. Would we want to use them? Not usually. Coughing up mucus is very important. Coughing is the body’s way of protecting the lungs from pneumonia. Turning off a cough increases the risk of pneumonia.

That being said, there are definitely times when it is appropriate to soothe a cough. When you have a baby or toddler who is having trouble sleeping because of a cough, there are still some things you can try at home to relieve his symptoms.

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What can I give my baby for his cough?

0 to 3 months- At this age, call a doctor. Sick newborns must be seen to rule out an infection.

3 months to 1 year- Offer warm fluids, such as water or apple juice. This will help to thin the mucus and relax the airway. A relaxed airway will help your child to cough more productively, keeping his lungs clear and preventing pneumonia.

1 year and older- Offer warm fluids, as well as a spoonful of honey as needed. Honey has been proven to be more effective than over the counter cough medicines. It is thought that the sweetness of honey causes salivation and increased airway secretions. These secretions may lubricate the airway and remove the tickle that causes a dry, nonproductive cough. Many of the newer, natural cough syrups that you see over the counter have honey in them. As an added bonus, kids don’t complain about taking honey for their cough.

Zarbee’s has a line of over the counter, natural cough syrups for babies and children. This line is safe to use, and I have been seeing it recommended pediatricians quite frequently. They do advertise safety in babies as young as two months, but please remember that a two month old with a cough needs an evaluation.

baby cough medicine

What can I do to help my baby’s cough?

  • Push warm fluids- This will thin out nasal secretions and loosen up the phlegm in the airway.


  • Use a humidifier– Dry air makes coughs worse. A humidifier will help to moisten the air and relieve a dry cough.


  • If you do not have a humidifier, steam up the bathroom and let your baby inhale the steam. Depending on your baby’s age, you can let your little one take a warm shower with you. I like to steam up the bathroom and then sit in the floor to read books with my children.


  • Elevate your baby’s head and torso (never just their head) when he is sleeping. In an infant you can do this by putting a wedge under the crib mattress or by following the directions on a safe crib wedge. Always put safety first. Never prop baby on blankets or pillows. A chemical free, non-slip wedge, with a twelve degree incline is considered safe for babies.


  • Clean out your baby’s nose. While babies do not like saline and suction, it makes a world of difference when it comes to helping them breathe better. Just put a drop or two in one side, suction it out, then repeat with the other side. Always use suction before feeding baby and not on a full stomach, as the process causes gagging sometimes and you do not want to make your baby vomit. Any saline nasal drop will work well. NoseFrida is all the rave with new parents for suctioning their baby’s nose. I prefer this less expensive option because it doesn’t require filters. I have both, and they work equally well.

What is the best humidifier to use?

Dr. Sears, who I admire for his well researched advice, recommends a cool air vaporizer. You can read his reasons here. Vicks make a super inexpensive option (I’m all about saving money) that works great. I have this one in my home.

cool mist vaporizer

Should I use Vick’s Vaporub?

Vicks Vaporub has always been a popular remedy for cold and cough in children. However, a few years back there were studies showing that maybe it isn’t as safe as we once thought. Several children had presented to the emergency room with respiratory distress that was actually caused by Vaporub. What happened?

Vaporub can cause inflammation in the airway and nasal passages, which can lead to trouble breathing, especially in babies and toddlers. Babies have teensie tiny nasal passages, so it doesn’t take much for them to have difficulty breathing.

So should you avoid Vaporub? Yes and no. Do not use Vaporub on a child under two years. It is safe to use on older children, as long as you do not apply it near the nose. It can be applied on the chest, back, and bottoms of their feet. The menthol in the rub will make nasal passages feel cool, which gives the feeling of breathing easier.

When does my child need to be seen?

  • When your baby is breathing too fast. How many breaths per minute is too many? >60 for 2 months and younger; >50 if 2-12 months; >40 if 1-5  years; >30 if 6-12 years; >20 if >12 years old.


  • Your child has chest pain or cannot take a deep breath.


  • Your child turns pale or blue.


  • It appears that your child is having any difficulty breathing.


  • Your child is retracting.


  • Your child is wheezing.


  • When you hear stridor.


  • Your baby is grunting or nasal flaring.


  • Constant coughing that keeps your child from sleeping or playing.


  • If your child has a fever, notify their pediatrician. Not all children with a fever need to be seen, but some do, especially the younger set. Always be sure to use the appropriate thermometer to check your baby’s temperature.


  • If your child has any symptoms that are concerning you; earache, sore throat that may be strep, or you just feel like they need to be seen. You know your child better than anyone else.

What does difficulty breathing look like?


A picture is worth a thousand words. Here are some excellent videos to help you understand difficulty breathing in children.