A runny nose and stuffed-up head signal a cold in almost everybody but newborns are different. Unexpected symptoms such as a stuffy nose with no discharge can be mystifying, especially to first-time parents, so here’s how one doctor explains why newborns usually sound like they’ve got a stuffy nose when it isn’t also runny and why this combo of symptoms is almost always OK.

Newborn baby in hospitalAccording to Howard J. Bennett, MD, there are a number of very normal reasons why a newborn baby sounds stuffy. Even stuffiness lasting a few months is usually normal. Bennett is an author, a pediatrician, and a clinical professor at George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, DC.

  • Amniotic Fluid: Babies spend nine months floating through a liquid bubble. Some fluid remains trapped in their nasal passages and it may take a few days of living on air to clear it all out.
  • Shallow Breathing: Newborns breath differently. They take shallow breaths followed by long pauses and deep inhalations. This slower, deeper breathing can sound like a stuffy nose.
  • Spitting Up: It’s normal for some babies to experience reflux (spitting up) for a while. Sometimes the regurgitated matter enters the nasal passage through the back of the mouth where it causes swelling that makes breathing sound stuffy.
  • Hair and Mucus: Babies have the same kind of hairs and mucous glands in their noses as big kids and adults do. They serve as a protective barrier keeping dust and other undesirable elements out of the lungs. An infant’s normal deep breathing may sound stuffy as air moves through these protective systems.
  • Sneezing: Healthy newborns can sneeze to clear their noses but they can’t yet snort and sniff. Their less-efficient means of clearing their noses means they sound stuffy some of the time.
  • Breathing Through Their Mouths: During the first few months of life, babies can only breathe through their noses. They haven’t yet mastered the ability to breathe through their mouths. As air passes through their tiny nasal passages, it may sound stuffy but there’s no cause for alarm.

When an otherwise healthy baby sounds stuffy, Dr. Bennet urges parents to simply let it be. He advises against using nasal aspirators and saline drops because they may do more harm than good. Nasal drops shrink nasal passages so more air can get through but this shrinking comes with a rebound effect. Once the medicine wears off, nasal passages often swell up worse than before. The rebound can be especially distressing for infants.

Source: Bennett, Howard J., MD. “6 Reasons Why Newborns Have Stuffy Noses.” The Huffington Post. Jan 16, 2014. Web. Jan 30, 2014.