3 Home Remedies for a Baby's Cough and Chest Congestion

There are three home remedies a parent can turn to if their baby or toddler has a mild cough with chest congestion. They involve:

  • Inhaling steam or humid air
  • Drinking lots of fluids
  • Using suction to clear mucus from the nasal passages

These methods are recommended because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises against the use of cough and cold medications in children under 2. This includes Vicks VapoRub, a popular over-the-counter remedy whose active ingredient, camphor, can increase mucus production and make congestion worse in children with smaller airways.

This article explains how each of these home remedies works and why they work. It also describes the signs and symptoms of a medical emergency every parent should know.

Mother with ear thermometer checking coughing child’s temperature

filadendron / Getty Images

Home Remedies For Your Baby's Cough

In most cases, your baby needs time and rest if they have a cough with chest congestion (referred to as a productive cough). Most cases are the result of a virus that ends up causing bronchitis (the inflammation of the airways that causes the overproduction of mucus).

If symptoms are relatively mild, it is best to let the infection run its course. The treatment, therefore, is focused on easing the symptoms without the use of medications (unless otherwise directed by your child's pediatrician).

There are three ways a parent can do this:

Increasing Humidity

If your baby has a productive cough, inhaling cool or warm humid air can help in two ways:

  • It hydrates the sinuses and prevents dryness, which can increase mucus production.
  • It helps thin mucus in the airways, making it easier to cough up.

A cool-mist humidifier can increase the relative humidity in a room while maintaining a comfortable room temperature for your baby. There are two different types you can buy: an ultrasonic humidifier (which tends to be quieter and produces a finer mist) and an evaporative humidifier (which may be useful in extremely dry climates).

Breathing in steam is another good way to break up mucus and ease a cough. The warmth causes the dilation (widening) of the airways, allowing moisture deeper access into the smaller passages of the lungs. Try running a hot shower and sitting outside the stall with your child.

Don't use a humidifier around the clock as overly damp surfaces can promote the growth of mold. Empty and clean the humidifier every day to prevent bacterial buildup.

Getting Lots of Fluids

Dehydration can make a productive cough worse by increasing the thickness of mucus in the lungs due to the lack of water. It can also cause airways to narrow (making it harder to breathe) and increase lung inflammation (making a cough worse).

The amount of fluid your child needs can vary. One way to tell is by paying attention to their urine. Frequent bathroom trips and light-colored pee are good indications that your child is getting plenty of fluids. In babies, look for frequent wet diapers.

Arguably the best option for toddlers to drink is plain water, but apple juice and broth are also good. Avoid orange juice as the acidity can irritate a child's throat. Milk may also not be good because it can increase mucus production.

Suctioning Nasal Mucus

A bulb syringe can help remove mucus from your child's nose. This can prevent nasal and sinus congestion that can impair breathing and make coughing worse.

To use a bulb syringe:

  1. Cradle your child's head comfortably in the crook of your arm.
  2. Apply saline nasal drops to help break up the mucus in the nostrils.
  3. Take the bulb syringe and squeeze all of the air out of the bulb.
  4. Place the tip of the syringe gently into the child’s nostril.
  5. Slowly release your grip on the bulb. As air re-enters, it draws mucus out of the nose.
  6. If the mucus is too thick to suction, add a few drops of saline.
  7. Continue until you no longer see any mucus. 

Suctioning before meals can help your child eat better by reducing mouth breathing.

Avoid suctioning more than four times a day as this can irritate the nasal passages. Stop right away if you notice blood in the mucus or your child's nose.

Causes of a Baby's Cough

A productive cough with bronchitis in children is almost invariably caused by a viral upper respiratory tract infection that moves into the lungs. These types of infections are acute, meaning that they develop quickly and resolve on their own within two or three weeks.

Infections of these sorts are common. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, even healthy children in daycare can have up to eight viral respiratory infections with a cough every year.

The most common viral causes in babies and young children include:

One of the more common bacterial causes is pertussis (whooping cough) caused by a bacteria known as Bordetella pertussis.

Less common causes include allergies, asthma, sinusitis (sinus infection), acid reflux, and an inhaled foreign body. Potentially serious causes include bacterial pneumonia, seasonal flu, and COVID-19.

When to Contact a Healthcare Provider

A cough that does not respond to conservative treatment should be seen by a healthcare provider as a matter of urgency. This includes a cough that persists for several weeks and is accompanied by difficulty breathing and a thick, greenish-yellow phlegm.

When to Call 911

Call 911 or seek emergency care if your child experiences the following signs and symptoms:

It's rare for a child to suffocate in situations like these, but it is possible. To help your baby breathe easier, hold them upright until they receive the appropriate medical care.


A cough with chest congestion in children under 2 years of age is not treated with drugs. Instead, the treatment should involve the inhalation of steam or humidity, lots of fluids, and a bulb syringe to clear nasal mucus.

Coughing in children of this age group is almost always caused by a virus, such as a cold virus or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Call your healthcare provider if symptoms persist or your child has concerning symptoms like fever, difficulty breathing, and greenish phlegm.

12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Carrie Madormo, RN, MPH
Carrie Madormo, RN, MPH, is a health writer with over a decade of experience working as a registered nurse. She has practiced in a variety of settings including pediatrics, oncology, chronic pain, and public health.