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What Does Your Baby’s Cough Mean?

A coughing baby can be tough to hear, especially if it’s keeping your little one awake at night. But if you know how to decode it, you can treat it

The cold cough

If your baby is snuffly and bunged up with a cold, he may also develop a cough. ‘It’s caused by infections in the upper respiratory tract – the nose, sinuses and throat – and can cause a wet, phlegmy cough or a dry cough,’ says GP Naomi Potter. ‘You won’t know if your baby is bringing up phlegm because he’ll swallow it rather than spitting it out.’


Most mild coughs caused by colds can be treated at home. ‘Make sure your baby gets plenty of rest and offer extra breastfeeds or bottle feeds so he gets enough fluid to fight off the infection,’ says Naomi. ‘If he has a temperature, you can treat it with infant paracetamol or ibuprofen to bring it down.’

Make sure your baby gets plenty of rest and offer extra breastfeeds or bottle feeds so he gets enough fluid to fight off the infection

You may be quick to reach for the cough medicines, but there’s still a lot of debate over whether they work. ‘They may work in older children by having a placebo effect – which is when a person’s symptoms improve through their belief that they will, rather than the actual medicine,’ says Naomi. ‘But in younger babies and toddlers, they don’t really make much difference and are often high in sugar which isn’t good for your child’s teeth.’


This is a more serious cough. ‘Look out for a hacking cough, with your baby looking very unwell, floppy and feverous,’ says Naomi. ‘He may go off his food.’ Bronchiolitis is caused when the smallest airways of the lungs get infected, becoming swollen and filled with mucus. This blocks the flow of air, making it harder for your baby to breathe.


‘It’s caused by a virus, so you can’t be prescribed antibiotics by your GP as they only work on bacterial infections,’ says Naomi. However, it should clear up in a few weeks. You could sit with your baby in a steamy bathroom to help relax his airways and ease any coughing symptoms.


This cough has a very distinctive sound. ‘It sounds like a seal barking,’ says Naomi. ‘It usually affects babies from the age of six months and your child may wake up in the night coughing. He may also sound like he’s struggling to breathe, which can be quite scary for parents.’


Croup sounds like a seal barking

If your baby is struggling to breathe, take him straight to your GP, or A&E if it happens in the night. ‘Sometimes taking your baby out into the cold air can help to alleviate breathing problems. Your GP may also prescribe steroids.’ As croup is often accompanied by typical cold symptoms, your baby will probably feel better if you treat those, too.

Whooping cough (pertussis)

As the name suggests, you should listen out for a distinctive “whooping” sound. ‘It’s characterised by bouts of intensive coughing and a whoop sound as the patient takes a quick breath between coughs,’ says Naomi. It can be a very serious condition in very young babies so it’s important that you take him to your GP if you’re concerned, and to A&E if he’s really struggling to breathe.


Young babies (usually those under 12 months), will be admitted to hospital and given antibiotics and steroid medication to reduce inflammation in the airways. Your baby will receive whooping cough vaccinations when he’s two, three and four months old, which is why it’s the very young babies that are most at risk.

Listen out for a distinctive “whooping” sound

However, if you’re pregnant, you can get a whooping cough jab when you’re between 28 and 38 weeks pregnant and this will provide protection for your baby when he’s born.

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