Why does your baby cough?
Coughs are a reflex action to clear the airways from mucus or other irritants. If your baby has a cold, they may cough because the extra mucus from the cold is trickling down the back of their throat.
What types of cough could my baby have?
You’ll come to recognise your baby’s normal coughs and sniffles over time, but there are some symptoms that suggest your baby’s cough could be more serious.
If your baby is coughing, but doesn’t wheeze or have trouble breathing, it’s most likely they have a straightforward cough. Your baby may have all the usual cold symptoms from a runny nose and sneezing to watery eyes.
If your baby has a bark-like cough, they may have croup. Croup is usually the result of a virus, but can also come from allergies or a change in temperature at night.
“Croup is a definite barking cough, often accompanied by a stridor. A stridor is the name given to a harsh noise your baby makes when they breathe in,” explains former NHS midwife and current independent midwife, Karina Dyer, from Infant Affinity.
Croup is fairly common and easily treatable, so take your baby along to your doctor.
If your baby is coughing persistently, they may have whooping cough. Other symptoms include a runny nose, sneezing and a high temperature.
“With whooping cough, you get the characteristic cough, cough, cough, and then a hoop as they inhale air again,” explains midwife Karina.
If your baby’s cough is causing them to wheeze or if it sounds very ‘productive’ (like there’s mucus being loosened when they cough), they may have bronchiolitis. This is an infection of the tiny airways in the lungs called bronchioles. While bronchiolitis is common for young babies, you must take your baby straight to the hospital if they are struggling to breathe.
Should you take your baby to your doctor when they have a cough?
Usually your baby’s cough isn’t a major cause for concern, but if the cough is accompanied by these follow symptoms, see your doctor:
- If your baby has a temperature of 38 degrees or higher
- If your baby vomits for more than 24 hours
- If your baby suffers badly with diarrhoea for more than 24 hours
- If your baby refuses feeds for more than six to eight hours
- If your baby shows signs of dehydration – dark mouth, dark yellow urine, dry nappy for six to eight hours
As a general rule, if your baby has a common cold cough and is over 3 months old then you don’t necessarily have to call the doctor, unless you think they have croup or whooping cough.
If your baby is under 3 months, it’s best to take them to the doctor, whatever kind of cough they have.
“It’s important to add that a mum knows her own baby. If you think, ‘Oh this isn’t right,’ or if your baby is a bit lethargic or floppy, just go to the doctor. The doctor isn’t going to worry because you’re taking a baby. It’s better to be safe than sorry,” says Karina.
What medicine can you give your baby to treat a cough?
There are no over-the-counter medicines for coughs that babies under 3 months are allowed to take. Take your young baby to your doctor, who may prescribe paracetamol, but it must be prescribed – don’t be tempted to just give it to your young baby without your doctor’s advice.
Babies who are over 3 months who have a normal cough are able to have baby paracetomol or baby ibuprofen, but make sure you read the packet before giving it to them. These are both available from your local pharmacist.
If you think your baby has croup or whooping cough, take them to your doctor, whatever their age.
What else can you do to ease your baby’s discomfort?
Babies can’t blow their own noses, so it’s up to you to keep it clean and to try and get as much mucus out as you can.
“Keeping your baby’s nose clean with a nice soft cloth is much better than a tissue, as tissues can make the nose sore,” advises Karina.
You can also try steam inhalation. Turn the shower on in your bathroom, close the door and sit with your baby on your lap. Let your baby inhale the steam, which will help clear their airways.
Make sure you feed your baby little and often if they have a blocked nose. A blocked nose will make it difficult for your baby to suck. It’s important to not let your baby get dehydrated, especially if they’re feeling under the weather already from their cough.
“If you’re breastfeeding, give your baby extra feeds as they may only be able to take two or three sucks a time. If you’re bottlefeeding, offer your baby water as well as their bottle,” suggests Karina.
Is there anyway to protect your baby from catching a cough?
Simple hygiene is key, so make sure you keep washing your hands and don’t sneeze around your baby. Ask friends and family to do this, too.
You should also keep your baby out of smoky atmospheres.