5 Things to Do When Your Baby Has a Cold

If your little one is sick, follow this guide to help her feel better.

baby with cold Getty
OF ALL THE milestones your baby will encounter in her first year, few will be as heartbreaking as her first cold. She might pant during feedings, snort herself awake during a nap, or look at you, bewildered, as if to say, "What is happening to me?" You'll want to do anything you can to make her feel better. While over-the-counter meds aren't an option at this age—they're neither safe nor effective, experts say—that doesn't mean you can't make your baby more comfortable when she's feeling under the weather.

1. Clear out the mucus.
For the first six months, babies tend to breathe through their nose, so congestion can hit them hard, says Mike Patrick, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Nationwide Children's Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio. The standard blue-bulb syringe can be too big for the tiniest nostrils, so try the smaller green version that's marketed as an ear syringe. After inserting it into your baby's nostril, tilt the tip down slightly so it's more perpendicular to his face, and gently push it in as far as it can go. "You'll be surprised how much mucus you can get out," says Dr. Patrick. For more power, use saltwater nose drops or spray to loosen the congestion. You can buy some at the drugstore, or make your own every day by mixing a quarter teaspoon of salt in 8 ounces of water, boiling it for ten minutes, and then cooling it to room temperature.

2. Keep her hydrated.
Just like adults, babies sometimes don't feel like eating when they're sick, but you should still encourage your baby to nurse or take a bottle as often as possible, says Charla Tabet, infant-development specialist at La Rabida Children's Hospital, in Chicago. If she won't drink milk, consult with your doctor to make sure she doesn't become dehydrated—and ask if it's okay to offer her an electrolyte solution, such as Pedialyte. Feeding your baby in an upright position can also help ease congestion and prevent mucus from running down her throat while she's trying to drink.

3. Help him cough it out.
"Babies don't have the muscle strength to cough effectively, so it can be tough for them to clear phlegm," says Stan Spinner, M.D., chief medical officer of Texas Children's Pediatrics in Houston. One way to help: Take your baby into the bathroom and turn on the shower to make the air hot and steamy. "It will get his nose running, loosen the mucus in his throat, and make his coughs more productive," says Dr. Spinner. Try doing it before bed, since mucus tends to drain into his throat and chest while he's lying down. A humidifier set up in the baby's bedroom can also help ease congestion, Dr. Spinner says. Be sure to keep it out of your baby's reach, and fill it with fresh water every day so it doesn't get moldy.

4. Encourage rest.
Your baby needs more sleep when she's sick, but all those annoying symptoms can make a decent snooze difficult. For a not-very-mobile baby, raising the head of her crib might help (but keep in mind that once she can roll around, she might end up head down and feet up). If a fever is making her too cranky to sleep, it's safe to give her infant acetaminophen between ages 2 and 6 months, and either infant acetaminophen or ibuprofen after 6 months. (Just make sure you carefully measure the dosage according to your baby's weight, not her age.) If she's younger than 2 months, consult your doctor before giving her medication. A comforting bedtime routine—such as playing music or taking a bath together—can go a long way toward encouraging her to nod off too.

5. Watch for warning signs.
If your baby seems to be getting worse, it may be time to contact your pediatrician. For infants up to 3 months, any fever over 100.4°F is a "call your doctor right away" scenario, says William Varley, M.D., community pediatrician with Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. For older babies, look out for a fever that lasts more than three days or that develops a few days after the onset of cold symptoms. Other signs to watch for include wheezing or rapid, strained breathing, which may indicate a virus or pneumonia. If your baby develops coughing fits, it may be whooping cough. Don't hesitate to reach out to your doctor with concerns.