What to do when your toddler is coughing in their sleep and won’t stop

If your toddler is coughing in their sleep, it can be keeping you both up all night and making you worry. While it’s a good idea to contact the pediatrician if you’re concerned or the cough persists, we have six home remedies that can help while you wait.

Toddlers may cough in their sleep because of dry air, a need to clear their throat, a medical condition, or a virus like a cold. There are a few situations when you should call the doctor, and we’ll get into all of that below. In the meantime, here’s how to stop coughing at night.

toddler sleeping

Causes of toddlers coughing in their sleep

There are many reasons why your toddler could be coughing in their sleep. The first that may come to mind is a cold or another virus or illness like the flu, croup, or COVID-19. If this is the case, the cough will pass in days (or weeks). Another possible cause of a night cough could be a chronic condition such as asthma, allergies, or air pollution. In addition, 5-10% of children have chronic cough according to an article in the journal Pediatrics in Review.

Figuring out the cause of the cough can help to determine the treatment. For example, sleeping propped up on a pillow instead of lying down flat can help if the issue is post-nasal drip from a cold, but won’t make a difference for another cause. A cough from congestion can get worse at night because of the mucus dripping down, so it makes sense that you could be dealing with a night cough.

Use the home remedies described below if your toddler has a cough with no other symptoms, but go see a doctor right away if your child:

  • Is struggling to breathe
  • Has bluish lips or face
  • Is wheezing
  • Is making harsh sounds with breathing
  • Is breathing much faster than normal
  • Can’t take a deep breath
  • Has chest pain
  • Has coughed up blood
  • Is high-risk or immunocompromised
  • Has a fever over 104 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Has a fever that lasts more than three days
  • Has a cough that lasts more than three weeks
  • Has a cough that causes vomiting more than three times

Seattle Children’s Hospital explains which of these conditions (and more) warrant a call to 911, and which can wait until morning.

Any chronic cough should be evaluated by a doctor. There are several conditions for which your child may be evaluated. For example, 25% of children with asthma only ever have cough as a symptom and the coughing spells can be the same as asthma attacks that present as wheezing. You will want to discover and eliminate any asthma trigger or allergy trigger in your child’s bedroom as soon as possible.

toddler sleeping

How to stop coughing at night

Cough medicines aren’t recommended for toddlers, at least not without consulting your pediatrician first for dosing and advice. However, if your toddler has a cough without any of the above symptoms, here are six home remedies you can use for toddler night coughing instead.

Warm bath or shower before bed

The warm steam and humidity can be soothing and break up congestion before bedtime. Keep the door closed and the fan off to keep all of the steam in. Don’t run the water too hot or leave your toddler unattended. Keep her hydrated and let her spit out any mucus from productive coughs while she is there.

Humidifier

A cool-mist humidifier running in your child’s bedroom overnight may also help his cough overnight. Adding moisture into dry air makes the air easier to breathe. A cool-mist humidifier is recommended over a warm-mist humidifier or a steam vaporizer. Be sure to clean it regularly.

Honey

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), there are appropriate uses of home remedies. The AAP states, “For children 1 year and older, use honey, 2 to 5 mL, as needed. The honey thins the mucus and loosens the cough.” The AAP also says you can use corn syrup if you don’t have honey. “Recent research has shown that honey is better than store-bought cough syrups at reducing how often coughing happens and how bad coughing is at night.”

Mentholated rub

“For children 2 years and older: Rub a thick layer of a mentholated rub on the skin over the chest and neck (over the throat),” suggests the AAP. Make sure that you store the rub out of reach like any other medicine.

Cool liquids

Staying hydrated is always important, and especially when you’re sick. Mucus becomes thinner when there is enough water in the body, making it easier to cough. Serve cool water to soothe the throat.

Sleeping on an incline

Put an extra pillow or two under your toddler’s head so their mucus can drain out of their sinus cavity while they sleep. The irritation from the mucus could be causing the overnight cough and sleeping propped up can help.

The best remedy for a toddler coughing in their sleep

Determining the cause of the overnight cough will help you choose the best remedy. There are different treatments for asthma versus a cold, of course.

However, while you wait to see the patterns and duration of the cough, the six home remedies above can alleviate the discomfort your toddler feels. If you have your diagnosis and are trying to sleep better, keep the throat coated, the air moist, and the body hydrated, and you’ll be well on your way to a happier toddler.

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