It’s common for new parents to worry if their baby is breathing normally. This is partly because many newborns sound stuffed up or make strange sounds when breathing, including a slight nasal whistle, seemingly labored breathing, or raspy noises.
In most cases, these sounds are normal. Unlike adults, babies younger than 4 months old prefer to breathe through their noses. They are obligate nasal breathers, meaning they like to breathe through their noses and not their mouths whenever possible. This is a natural adaptation: it allows babies to continue breathing while they eat; it helps your baby develop a stronger immune system; and it warms and moistens air before it is introduced to the throat and lungs.
Your baby’s nasal passages are very small, so it doesn’t take much to congest them, and many babies sound stuffed up even if they’re not actually sick. If your baby appears to be laboring for breath, has flaring nostrils, or is turning a light shade of blue (a condition called cyanotic), you should seek medical attention. However, in most cases, that “stuffed up” sound is normal, and you can take steps to relieve any congestion in your newborn’s little nose.
Pediatricians recommend using bulb-type syringes to suction extra mucus from your baby’s nasal passages and a humidifier to make breathing easier and reduce congestion. Both can be used when your baby is healthy or if your baby has an upper respiratory tract infection.
There are a number of types of humidifiers, including warm mist, cool mist, and vaporizers. Because warm mist humidifiers and vaporizers use heated water to generate mist, which is a burn risk, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using cool mist humidifiers around babies and infants. These humidifiers use fans or ultrasonic technology to produce cool mist.
While humidifiers can help relieve congestion and make breathing easier, it’s critical to regularly maintain your humidifier by emptying the humidifier base daily and disinfecting your humidifier with a white vinegar water solution weekly. Not cleaning a humidifier can lead to issues with mold, bacteria, fungi, and other organisms growing in the tank, which can aggravate asthma and allergies, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. In areas with hard water, it is best to use distilled or demineralized water to prevent the build-up of minerals in the water, which not only can be expelled into the air but may compromise the operation of your humidifier.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, May 2020