How to help your baby through runny nose season

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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

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.

“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

  • acetaminophen or ibuprofen for
    irritability and feeling unwell from
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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.

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