Surviving Your Baby's First Cold

Your baby will probably get sick during their first cold and flu season. Still, there's plenty you can do to keep doctor visits to a minimum and comfort your little one through all stages of a cold.

Infants don't have the antibodies to fight off most colds and gastrointestinal infections, making them more likely than older kids and adults to get sick. "In the first year, babies come down with about six to 12 infections, most lasting seven to 10 days," says Mary Anne Jackson, M.D., a pediatric expert at Children's Mercy Hospital and Clinics, in Kansas City, Missouri. "That's up to 120 days of the year they may be sick."

During those first few months, a rectal temperature higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit warrants an automatic call to the doctor. And if your baby is under 1 month old, they may need readmission to the hospital. "For that reason, we'd love to keep newborns from becoming sick," says Theoklis Zaoutis, M.D., associate chief of the division of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. But, unfortunately, that's not always realistic.

So what's a new parent to do? Keep reading to learn germ-fighting habits that could help your baby dodge an illness all year round—or at least make those sick days more bearable for both of you.

An image of a mother measuring her baby's temperature with a thermometer.
Getty Images.

Stages of a Cold in Babies

Although babies are born with some of their birth parent's immunity to illness, which can be enhanced by breastfeeding, that doesn't completely protect them against the ever-changing collection of viruses that cause upper respiratory infections like the common cold. Colds aren't all bad news, though—most babies will come down with several colds in their first year of life, and the illnesses will help them begin to build up their own immunity.

So what does a baby cold look like? It usually comes on slowly and lasts about nine days. Some parents find it helpful to break the infection cycle into three distinct stages: three days coming, three days here, and three days going.

Three days coming

During the first three days, when your child is contagious, they may seem fussier than usual, have a slightly decreased appetite, and run a fever. If they're under 3 months old and their rectal temperature is above 100.4 degrees F, call your pediatrician's office immediately for advice and instructions. (Some good news: Once your child is a preschooler, a cold usually causes only a slight increase in temperature.) Usually, a runny nose appears on the second or third day, signaling that your child's immune system is fighting back. During this stage, the mucus is clear and thin and runs constantly.

Three days here

During the middle phase of a cold, the fever usually goes away, and your baby might be less fussy and eating better. The mucus will thicken a bit and may turn light yellow. At this stage, babies develop the classic "stuffy and runny nose."

This is also the time when they may develop a cough. That's because when a baby lies on their back, mucus drips down the nasal passages to the back of the throat and sets off a cough response to keep the fluid out of the lungs. Inevitably, this can make it difficult for your child—and for you—to sleep.

Three days going

Like a houseguest who stays too long, colds can linger. In the final three days, the mucus thickens even more and becomes crusty. Babies generally act normal in most ways at this stage, eating well and resuming activity.

How to Prevent a Cold in Babies

While colds are generally not severe, many parents worry about a cold developing into something more serious. It's a legitimate concern, especially for young babies. While you can't always prevent viral infections, the good news is there are steps you can take to lessen the likelihood that your baby will get seriously sick.

"Until your baby has their first round of shots at 2 months old, you should be extra cautious," says Mary Ian McAteer, M.D., a pediatrician in Indianapolis. Also, newborns should avoid crowds, so keep them home as much as you can. After those first two months, here are more ways to prevent your baby from getting a cold.

Keep your baby close

When you do venture out, stay 6 feet from anyone coughing or sneezing. To keep your baby extra close, you may consider wearing them in a carrier. Strangers are less likely to touch your baby's hands and face when your baby is attached to you. If they're in a stroller, keep the canopy down, and cover it with a light, breathable blanket.

Mind the company your family keeps

Ask guests who have been sick to hold off on visiting until they no longer have symptoms and have been fever-free for at least 24 hours (without using a fever-reducing medication). Since little kids have less practiced hygiene skills, allow younger kids to look at the baby but not touch them, especially near places like their face and hands.

Wash your hands often

"A lot of germs are carried on your hands," Dr. Zaoutis says. So scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds—sing "Happy Birthday," twice to time it—every time you come in from a public place, use the bathroom, eat, or change a diaper.

Stool is full of bacteria, and if it makes its way to your infant's mouth, it can cause diarrhea and vomiting. Another tip is to stash alcohol-based hand sanitizer in your bag and next to the changing table, and keep some out for guests. It's convenient and almost as effective as hand-washing unless your hands are visibly soiled, Dr. Jackson says.

Keep nursing

Studies show that serious colds and ear and throat infections are reduced by 63% in infants who breastfeed exclusively for six months. Babies who nurse are also much less likely to come down with respiratory tract infections and stomach bugs.

Disinfect surfaces

Germs can live for hours on things like shopping carts, so keep a package of sanitizing wipes in your diaper bag.

Take precautions at the pediatrician's office

Babies see their pediatrician a lot during the first year. Dr. Jackson says that even if your doctor's office has separate sick and well rooms, waiting rooms are filled with germs. Consider requesting the first or last slot of the day when you're less likely to be met with a crowd of coughing kids. Or ask to sit in your car or an exam room while you wait, rather than in the waiting area.

Don't delay or skip any of your baby's vaccines

"Following the vaccine schedule is the best way to prevent illnesses like the measles, meningitis, and chicken pox," Dr. McAteer says. "Because we don't see these illnesses frequently, parents think we don't need these vaccines, but no—that's the proof that they're doing their job." If you wonder whether it's safe to give so many shots so close together, the answer is yes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Get your shots too

In particular, parents and parents-to-be should get the flu and pertussis (whooping cough) vaccines. Dr. Jackson says that getting the flu shot when you're pregnant passes antibodies on to your fetus that should last them for about six months. (Babies don't get the flu vaccine until they are at least 6 months old.)

Flu can be deadly in newborns, making any side effects you may experience from the jab (such as low-grade fever and nausea) minor in comparison. The CDC recommends that pregnant people also get vaccinated against whooping cough between 27 and 36 weeks, so they don't pass the illness to their unvaccinated newborn. In short, everyone in your baby's circle including older siblings should be immunized.

Boost your immunity

It's hard to get enough sleep when you have a newborn who's up every two hours, but do what you can to get shut eye, even if that means napping during the day. Make sure you eat well too. Keeping your body fueled will help you fight off illnesses that you could otherwise pass to your little one.

Treating Your Baby's Cold

The simple truth is there's no quick fix for a cold or flu. Antibiotics aren't effective against viruses, and most antiviral drugs aren't approved for babies. A growing body of research suggests that decongestants and combination decongestant-antihistamine products, which can cause side effects such as jitteriness or difficulty sleeping in babies and kids, aren't very effective in children either.

As a result, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises against giving these kinds of medications to children under 2. Your best bet is to use some natural remedies to fight colds in babies, like suctioning mucus, keeping them hydrated, and keeping the air moist.

When to Call the Doctor

Whether your baby has a cold or another illness, you should call the doctor for the following scenarios:

  • If your baby is listless, not reacting to you, has poor color, or if you feel something isn't right
  • If their cough is worsening or your child is having difficulty breathing
  • If your baby is crying more than usual, tugging on their ear, or refusing the breast or bottle
  • If you suspect your infant has the flu, especially if they have a high fever and cough that persists for more than three days
  • If your infant is under 3 months old and has a fever (rectal temperature of 100.4 or greater)
  • If your older child has a high fever for more than five days, a worsening cough (with or without chest pain), a headache for more than five days, or a headache that is getting worse or is accompanied by a stiff neck
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