The Head Cold vs. Your Baby

baby head coldWhen my first son, J, was a baby and toddler, his colds were the worst. I remember hanging out on the floor of our little bathroom with the shower on full-blast. Steam filled the air as I tried to keep him entertained — and sweated like a fiend in my sweater. (Since I worried his little body might get overheated before mine did, I tried to add a layer.) But somewhere between the time that J was a baby and my second, H, was born, I guess I got my baby-with-a-cold routine down, because I don’t remember H’s colds being bad at all.

I included a write-up of my routine in a little themed gift basket I just put together for a pregnant friend — so I thought I’d share my tips here as well in case they’re helpful. Ladies, what were some of your biggest lessons for how to take care of sick babies? What products and techniques do you swear by? 

  • The snot. Oh, there is nothing worse than the snot. The NoseFrida Snot Sucker is, hands down, amazing — don’t even bother with the bulbs the hospital gives you. Things to know about the Snot Sucker: Babies HATE IT, so you or your partner may need to hold them down. I’ve heard the Snot Sucker can trigger a baby’s gag reflex, so you want to do it right when he gets up from his nap or right before his nap — try not to do it 15-30 minutes after feeding a baby.
    • If his snot is really thick, or if there’s a combination of crusted and runny mucus, saline mist can help. (This is something else that babies HATE, so you have to be quick about it.)
    • Boogie Wipes are good, but cotton balls are also wonderful for wiping little noses. They’re great because they’re super soft, and they hold a lot of water, meaning you can squirt some up the baby’s nose while “wiping.” It’s great to wipe their noses with a cotton ball, then pull out the Snot Sucker. (These are also great bathtime staples — I used one almost every day for H’s bath when he was really small, both to wash his face and clear out some snot.)
    • Vapor baths. We’ve always used Johnson’s Vapor Bath, but I just realized Babyganics has a vapor bath as well, so we’ll give that a try. Both are really helpful for opening the sinuses (along with a vapor rub for sleep; see below).
    • Steam. If you can stand to be in a steam-filled bathroom with your baby, it can be also helpful, but less so than the other things, I’ve found. With H I used to run the shower for a few minutes with the door closed so it would get nice and steamy in there, then pop in to draw his lukewarm baby bath, keeping the door closed as he played on the floor behind me.
  • Fever. Maybe I’m insane here, but I feel like every thermometer we have gives us a different wrong reading. There are stickers you can put on a baby’s forehead to gauge the temperature; we’ve used the Exergen forehead thermometer, and there are your standard-issue drugstore thermometers. In my 4.5 years as a mother, though, there’s only one time that one of my boys had a serious fever, and I knew it the second I picked him up — his little body was so hot. At the doctor’s office he clocked in at barely over 100 (I would have guessed 104 or something!), and after that I haven’t really worried about using thermometers. If you’ve got a strict daycare or preschool fever cutoff it matters a lot more, but from a health perspective I trust my gut as a mom.
  • Promoting sleep. One of the worst things about a sick baby is that they get lousy sleep. We swear by chest rub to help keep their sinuses open (either Baby Vicks or Maty’s); there are also wall plug-ins from Vicks that almost act like diffusers. Humidifiers are also great — we just got this one (recommended by The Sweethome as the easiest to clean, and they were right); we’ve used this one in the past as well. Note that now is not the time to sleep train or try to stick to anything else overly strict — I always saw my goal as promoting sleep however I needed to, even if that meant letting my son fall asleep on my shoulder, or with me rubbing his back, and so forth.

Otherwise: settle in for a few days of a very cranky baby, try to keep their sinuses clear and keep feeding them (even if they refuse). I have memories of using a medicine dropper for both boys for water and milk, although I don’t remember the exact circumstances — fluids are important, though. A pacifier or bottle can also help with their sinuses, I believe, the same way they help regulate air pressure on a flight.

Ladies, what are your best tips for dealing with a baby with a head cold?

baby head cold tips


  1. Anon in NYC says:

    If they’re still in a crib, take a pillow and prop up the mattress in the space between the mattress and the crib slats.

    The steam shower sort of helps my LO, but the thing that has worked best for us is saline spray and the Nose Frida. We have a humidifier, but I don’t think it does much for her.

  2. The NoseFrida. So gross, so effective, so my baby being convinced we’re sucking her brains out through her nose.

  3. Clementine says:

    Random tips I’ve learned:

    If they have really crusty boogers stuck up there or really thick mucus, you can squirt some breast milk up there to loosen stuff up and then NoseFrida it out.

    Put baby in Rock and Play (or other carrier with an incline) in the bathroom. Have dad shower. Have mom shower. Let bathroom be all steamy. After the steam has cleared, THEN NoseFrida the kid. At that point, the steam has loosened stuff up enough so you can really get it out.

    • Meg Murry says:

      +1 to inclined sleeping in a steamy bathroom. I’m pretty sure my oldest spent more nights sleeping in his bouncy seat in the bathroom or our bedroom than his crib during that first cold season.

      However, I would seriously suggest for tiny babies talking to your ped about how to take a temperature (some still recommend rectal, others think it’s not a good idea for clueless parents). The ear thermometers are complete crap, don’t even bother, and the temporal ones range from super accurate to not much better than your hand. Kid’s fevers can go from moderately high to dangerously so really fast, and my oldest had a febrile seizure from the quick spike, which was absolutely terrifying. Thank goodness we lived directly across the street from the hospital and went to the ER at a run. In all of the fear-mongering books on horrible things that could happen to your baby, I don’t ever remember reading about febrile seizures. Apparently they are far more terrifying to the adults than they are dangerous, but it’s still nothing I’d ever wish on another parent. And earlier that day he had just seemed moderately fussy, a little snotty and only had a temperature around 99 – so it came on fast.

      Since then, I’ve learned my lesson that if the kid has a fever in the day it will probably get worse at night, and to call the pediatricians office to go over the “watch for this, treat X with Y, and go straight to the ER for Z” plan.

      • Philanthropy Girl says:

        My ped nurse sister insists rectal is the only way to be accurate with a home thermometer. Our thermometer actually has a little guide on it so you don’t insert too far. Once I worked up the bravery to do it, it became NBD. Baby seemed to stay still much better for that than any other method.

        If – like my DH – you’re totally freaked about rectal temperature, our pediatrician said you can take under arm (especially if they’re little enough to keep still) and add approximately 2 degrees. When calling to consult on the what to watch for, be sure to mention the method by which you took the temperature.

  4. Saline drops in the nose are the best for clearing congestion. You need a team to hold my toddler down to administer them, though.

  5. Steam and the snot sucker are a great combination. California Baby has a eucalyptus (and mint maybe?) bath oil that worked wonders for my kids, with a hot bath, loosening all the crud in their nose/chest/head.

    Kat, I completely agree with you on thermometers. When you pick up your kid and he’s running a fever – you KNOW. Their little bodies get so hot.

    My oldest absolutely refused to take medicine when he was younger. To the point that he learned how to make himself throw up and would do it as soon as medicine came his way. Even nurses at the hospital gave up. When he absolutely had to have medicine, we mixed it in maple syrup and put it on pancakes. Not the most nutritious, but desperate times…

    • Rachel says:

      You can get tylenol suppositories for kids. Works great for kids who vomit up medicine. It’s called “Feverall”

      • We actually ended up having to use those when he had his tonsils taken out. Thankfully he’s finally old enough to reason out that he really wants the M&M I’ll give him if he just drinks his medicine.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I have a young kid and I and the husband and I have a small business.

    I had a really rough go after the baby – I gained a lot of weight and had to buy a new work wardrobe and proceeded to lose weight so I’ve had to buy more new stuff once already. I’ve also consistently earned more than I did pre baby but it’s been stressful and less certain. It has been a good run but the good run could stop.

    I used to spend a reasonable amount (maybe $100/month) on stuff like haircuts, nails etc. And to some extent that stuff is all as important as a professional wardrobe. How do you ladies budget those things? How often is it reasonable to go and how much do you spend? I feel guilty about these things.

    • Anonymous4 says:

      So this is embarrassingly honest – but I don’t have a budget for this stuff. I think I’ve had one haircut in 18 months. I haven’t had my nails done since I was pregnant. My weight is all over the place and I keep patching my wardrobe together at consignment shops. I’ve chosen to put that money I’d normally spend on myself toward my family – things to do together, dinner out, date night with DH.

      What’s stupid is, I feel guilty about this too. It seems that no matter what we do as moms, we feel guilty about it. I’m really working on this – because guilt over this sort of thing is stupid. I get frustrated because I feel that culturally, women are expected to spend so much more than men. We give off the attitude of “not caring” or “giving up on ourselves” if we don’t spend a fortune in time and money on our grooming. I feel guilty spending it, and I feel guilty not spending it.

      We do zero based budgeting – so when DH and I do the budget I give him an estimate of what I need for the month. Some months could be on $20 to pick up stuff for an in-home manicure or replenish my make-up, this month could be $150 because I need a hair cut and a new bra. All of our flexible spending categories change month-to-month depending on what we need.

      You could also work from a percentage of your income. I’ve seen anywhere from 1% – 6%, probably depending on salary and what other financial obligations there might be.

  7. NewMomAnon says:

    For my kiddo, the nebulizer was a godsend. If you have a kiddo who sounds like they have cellophane in their lungs when they get sick, tell the doctor each time it happens. 3+ times is considered RAD (suspected asthma) and no amount of Vicks, humidifiers, steamy bathrooms, etc will help.

    Other advice I’ve gotten from nurses and doctors; if your child is old enough that solid food is the primary source of nutrition, cut back on milk and up the water if they have really thick mucus or phlegmy coughs.

    Finally, false pinkeye diagnoses are my nemesis at daycare. Per the ped, if the eye is just crusty but not pink, it’s either viral pinkeye (common with a cold, no treatment, no reason to send kiddo home) or a blocked tear duct (not contagious). If the eye is crusty and the white is pink, that needs treatment.

  8. In House Lobbyist says:

    I also rub coconut oil or Vaseline over those crusty noses to help remove what is there and to prevent further crustiness.

  9. Meg Murry says:

    Cotton balls are useful, but I’ve found the cotton squares to be even better. My kids tend to have colds and allergies turn into crusty eyes, which sure looks gross and painful and is asking to get them sent home from daycare for pinkeye. We use a fresh square for each eye (or 2 or 3 until no longer goopy) wet with as warm of water as reasonable, and wipe with the “eye wipers” multiple times a day when colds or allergies strike. They hated it as babies, but once they learned it actually feels good to wash the gunk out of your eyes they started asking for “eye wipers”. I also let them see me do it myself during cold/allergy season so they know I’m not just torturing them for fun.

  10. Melissa says:

    My baby is 9 months, I often drop breast milk in his nose. I did it as a prevention and when he has a runny nose. I read about it here It helps my little kid and I do not want to give him any drugs either.