How to help your baby through runny nose season

By Erin Dym on September 12, 2013
I will never forget waking up the morning of my brother’s wedding to discover that my six-month-old son had contracted his first cold. He had a stuffed up nose, tiny appetite and was generally miserable. We managed to get through the day and comfort him as best we could, and that’s probably all most parents can do when it comes to treating colds, says Dr. Daniel Flanders, a Toronto pediatrician and director of Kindercare Pediatrics.

“Once a baby catches a cold, there’s very little that a caring and attentive parent can do to make a cold better,” says Dr. Flanders. “The cold will take as long as it takes to run its course.”

A typical cold is caused by thousands of different viruses. According to Dr. Flanders, the duration of colds can vary tremendously. “Whereas a typical cold lasts about four to seven days, some can last less than 24 hours and others can go on for weeks. Each baby’s immune system differs in terms of how aggressively he or she fights illnesses,” he says.

There is also no typical age at which a baby can catch a cold. It might even have more to do with birth order than age. “For example, many first-born children tend to have limited exposure to other young children, such as pre-schoolers and school-aged children, who are the major reservoir for most of the viruses that cause colds,” says Dr. Flanders.

“Given that colds are transmitted person-to-person, they can go many months, if not longer than a year, without catching a cold. On the other hand, a second or third-born child often has siblings who are likely bringing home many cold-causing viruses. They may get a cold in the first weeks or months of life.”

The good news is that usually during the first six to nine months, the number of colds is limited. “That’s because when in utero, the fetus receives maternal antibodies which travel from mom’s blood, through the placenta, and into the fetus,” says Dr. Flanders.

“After birth, maternal antibodies remain in the baby’s system for months, providing protection for the baby against virtually every virus and bacteria that his or her mother’s body has seen over the course of the mother’s entire lifetime.”

Though there is no cure for the common cold, parents can try to manage the symptoms and make babies more comfortable until the body’s immune system clears the infection on its own. Dr. Flanders recommends:
  • acetaminophen or ibuprofen for irritability and feeling unwell from fever.
  • saline (salt water) rinses and gentle suction with a soft suction bulb for very congested/runny noses.
  • cold liquids/foods like freezies, popsicles, or even ice-cold water to soothe a sore throat.
  • raising the head of the bed/crib, running the humidifier, and steamy showers to relieve a cough.

Some over-the-counter cough and cold medicines should never be given to children under the age of six because of the ingredients they contain, while other medications that do not contain these active ingredients can be safe for young children. Since 2009, medications containing the offending ingredients must indicate they are not to be used in children under age six.  So always check the label to make sure the medication is suitable for your child.

Preventing colds

You can take measures to prevent colds in the first place:
  • Practise frequent hand-washing.
  • Keep sick people away from the baby and home where practical.
  • Use proper coughing/sneezing etiquette (like sneezing into your elbow).
  • Breastfeed. “There is evidence that breastfeeding has a protective effect against colds,” says Dr. Flanders. “On average, compared to their nonbreastfed peers, breastfed infants get fewer colds, and the colds that they do get tend to be less severe.” • Rethink play dates. “Generally speaking, if a child doesn’t seem to feel well enough for a play date or a visit to a relative’s house, then it is wise to cancel and keep your baby at home,” says Dr. Flanders. “Also, if a baby has fever, there is a higher chance that he is contagious, in which case it’s best to stay home.”

It is also considerate to ask about the comfort level of the person or people you are visiting. Some households will welcome you regardless of your baby’s health status, whereas others would prefer you not visit until your baby is 100 percent cold-free. Learn your daycare policy as well.

5 most important items to have on hand when a cold hits:

  • Plenty of fluids.
  • Lots of tissues (the softer the better).
  • A good thermometer.
  • Acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
  • Quick access to the phone numbers for your child’s doctor, local walkin clinic, and provincial telephone advice service

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2013.

By Erin Dym| September 12, 2013

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