Babies and young children are sensitive to airborne irritants, which can lead to a stuffy or blocked nose.
It may occur in one or both nostrils, causing a partial or complete block.
This can be distressing for both the child and his or her parents!
While older children and adults are able to breathe through their mouth if they have a blocked nose, babies can’t as they haven’t yet learnt how to do so.
Thus, a blocked nose can turn breathing into a struggle.
Worse still, a stuffed-up nose that occurs frequently increases the risk of infection, which can lead to complications such as sinusitis (inflammation of the sinus) or otitis media (infection of the middle ear).
Through the nose
There are reasons why we breathe through the nose – which is the correct way – and not our mouth.
Our nostrils function as the entry point for air to enter into the body during respiration.
They are lined with thin hairs that help trap dirt and other particles within the air.
The air is also humidified within the nostrils, and warmed or cooled accordingly before it enters our lungs.
This “filtration” process continues in the windpipe, which is covered in mucus that traps unwanted particles before they enter into our lungs.
When one breathes through the mouth, this important process is skipped altogether.
Causes of a stuffy nose
Environmental factors such as dry air, especially in an air-conditioned room, and irritants in the form of ultrafine particles from aromatherapy essential oils or incense, are usually the culprits behind a stuffy nose.
Indoor allergens are also another factor, e.g. cockroach/dust mite droppings, pet fur and dander, and mould.
As your baby/toddler spends almost all of his time indoors, repeated exposure to these irritants or indoor allergens can cause secretions to build up in the nose, thus causing a stuffy nose when he lies down.
This is why your baby may suddenly wake up in the middle of night, forcing you or your spouse to cradle him in an upright position in order to get him to sleep again!
These same factors can cause older children to get upper airway respiratory tract infections (e.g. the common cold or flu) or have allergic rhinitis, which causes nasal secretions and a stuffy nose.
Another potential reason is structural abnormalities of the face, such as an enlarged adenoid blocking the nasal cavity, a deviated nasal septum, or narrowing of the nasal cavity.
Because of the abnormality, nasal secretions easily accumulate and can lead to a stuffy nose.
In such cases, breathing difficulties can happen throughout the day.
Clearing the nose
As babies and toddlers normally do not know how to blow their nose to clear nasal blockages, parents have to help them.
It’s certainly a relief to be able to breathe normally, and more importantly, during feeding (with a blocked nose, it’s hard for babies to breathe and be fed at the same time!) or bedtime.
As long as your baby is well and has no fever or any other indication of a respiratory tract infection, there is no need to panic.
Instead, stay calm and focus on clearing her blocked nose.
Avoid the use of medication (unless prescribed by your child’s paediatrician) and vapour rubs (e.g. menthol-, eucalyptus-, or camphor-based rubs).
Vapour rubs are not recommended for children under two years of age as they may cause irritation and mucus build-up instead.
All you need is nasal spray and a nasal aspirator.
Your baby may struggle if she is not used to the sensation in her nose, so mum and dad should work together to use them (see photo below).
There are many factors contributing to good nasal hygiene.
A clean environment is key to reducing (and preventing) the incidence of a stuffy nose.
Try to keep baby’s room and common spaces in the house free from dust and indoor allergens.
The use of air conditioning should be regulated to a moderate temperature (26°C is recommended), with the air not directly blowing onto the child’s face.
If you use a humidifier in your room, clean it regularly.
Avoid using any kind of aroma-related materials, including natural scents, as these may irritate your baby’s sensitive nose and airways.
If anyone smokes cigarettes or uses vape at home, do seriously consider quitting for the child’s sake.
At the very least, only smoke or vape outside your home at a distance.
If your child often suffers from a blocked nose, take the necessary steps to clear it quickly.
This will minimise any discomfort or distress your child may experience as it can affect his well-being and your own (especially when you have to stay up throughout the night tending to him!).
Parents should also ensure that they themselves follow good nasal hygiene practises.
Dr Norzila Mohamed Zainudin is a consultant paediatrician and paediatric respiratory physician. This article is courtesy of the Malaysian Paediatric Association’s Positive Parenting programme in collaboration with expert partners. For further information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only, and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.