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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. It’s always a good idea to contact the pediatrician whenever you’re concerned about your toddler’s persistent cough. Toddlers may cough in their sleep for a variety of reasons including dry air, a need to clear their throat, allergies, or because of a cold or flu. Night coughing can also be a red flag for a medical condition like asthma. There are several home remedies you can try to soothe a toddler coughing during sleep and of course there are a few situations where you should make that emergency call to the doctor in the middle of the night. We’ve got your home remedy guide to help your toddler and the house get some sleep along with those important toddler coughing in sleep red flags to be on the lookout for.

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 often pass in days, but it may take weeks too. Another possible cause of a night cough could be a chronic condition such as asthma, allergies, or air pollution. According to an article in the medical journal Pediatrics in Review, five to ten percent of children with a persistent cough have a chronic medical condition such as asthma.

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 like an allergy to the cat. 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 during a cold.

Use the home remedies described below if your toddler has a nighttime cough without any 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

If you’re not sure which of the conditions mentioned above warrant an emergency call to 911 or can wait until morning, the Seattle Children’s Hospital offers more details. Any chronic cough should be evaluated by a doctor. There are several conditions a doctor will take a closer look at for a child struggling with a chronic cough. 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 and warrant an emergency room visit.

If asthma is at the root of your toddler’s night cough, you will want to discover and eliminate any asthma trigger or allergy trigger in your child’s bedroom as soon as possible. Allergens like pollen, dust, and pet dander are typically asthma triggers for kids.

Sleeping toddler with their teddy bear.

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 of cough syrups.

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 the bathroom. Don’t make the water temperature too hot or leave your toddler unattended in the bath or shower. Keep your toddler hydrated and let him or her spit out any mucus from productive coughs while in the steamy bathroom.

Humidifier

A cool-mist humidifier running in your child’s bedroom overnight may also help alleviate overnight cough. 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 any humidifier regularly to prevent mold and mildew growth. Using a dirty humidifier will make a cough worse.

Honey

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), there are appropriate uses of home remedies like honey. The AAP states kids one year of age and older can use two to five milliliters of honey as needed to soothe a cough. “Honey thins the mucus and loosens the cough” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. “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,” advises the AAP. The AAP also says you can use corn syrup if you don’t have honey on hand in the middle of the night.

Mentholated rub

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests, parents can put “a thick layer of a mentholated rub on the skin over the chest and neck (over the throat).” Parents should be careful to store the rub out of the reach of kids just like any other medicine.

Cool liquids

Staying hydrated is always important, and especially when kids are sick. It actually more vital when children are congested. Mucus becomes thinner when there is enough water in the body, making it easier to cough. Serve cool water to toddlers to help soothe the throat and alleviate the cough.

Sleeping on an incline

Put an extra pillow or two under your toddler’s head. Doing so can help the mucus naturally drain out of the sinus cavity while your toddler sleeps. Post nasal drip gets worse at night and the irritation from the mucus could be causing the overnight cough. Sleeping on an incline will definitely provide some relief.

The best remedy for a toddler coughing in their sleep

When it comes to a toddler coughing in sleep, determining the cause of the overnight cough will help you choose the best remedy. It’s important to find the cause of a persistent night cough because there are different treatments for a cough caused by a cold and one triggered by asthma.

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 in the meantime. Be watchful of coughs with any red flags like high fevers or wheezing. Some nighttime coughs can wait until morning, but others require an emergency call. Once you have a diagnosis and are trying to help your toddler to sleep better, remember to try and keep the throat coated, the air moist, and the body hydrated. All can help ease the cough so you and your toddler get a restful night’s sleep.

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