Treating a persistent cough in babies and toddlers

A persistent cough in a baby or toddler can be a cause of concern (and sleep deprivation!) for parents. While coughing is a natural reflex that helps clear the airways, it can be distressing for both the child and the caregiver when it becomes frequent or persistent.

Treating a persistent cough in young children requires gentle care and appropriate remedies. In this article, we will explore the causes of coughs in children, and some effective strategies and care tips for little ones (plus we provide evidence on some of the more outdated and potentially harmful treatments). Remember, while these suggestions can provide relief, it’s always crucial to consult a healthcare professional if you have any concerns about your child’s health.

Treating a persistent cough in babies and toddlers

Firstly, let’s look at why your little one might be coughing. A cough in children can be caused by various factors, including:

  1. Respiratory infections: Common viral infections like the common cold, flu, croup, bronchitis, or pneumonia can lead to coughing in children.
  2. Allergies: Allergic reactions to substances such as pollen, dust mites, pet dander, mould, or certain foods can trigger coughing in children.
  3. Asthma: Asthma is a chronic condition characterised by inflammation and narrowing of the airways. Coughing is a common symptom of asthma, particularly during or after physical activity or exposure to triggers like allergens or cold air.
  4. Environmental irritants: Exposure to irritants like smoke (including secondhand smoke), air pollution, strong odours, or chemical fumes can cause coughing in children.
  5. Postnasal drip: When excess mucus drips down the back of the throat from the nose and sinuses, it can irritate the throat and trigger coughing.
  6. Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD): Acid reflux, where stomach acid flows back up into the oesophagus, can cause coughing, especially if the reflux reaches the throat.
  7. Whooping cough: Pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious bacterial infection that causes severe bouts of coughing, particularly in younger children.
  8. Foreign object: If a child accidentally inhales or swallows a small object, it can cause coughing as the body tries to clear the foreign material.
  9. Habitual cough: Some children develop a habitual or psychogenic cough, which is a persistent cough not associated with any underlying medical condition. It is often triggered by stress or anxiety.

Effective strategies and care tips for little ones with a persistent cough

Most coughs are caused by viruses and get better after about a week, but if they persist, here are some simple things you can do at home to help soothe your child’s cough:

Rest is the best remedy

When a child is suffering from a persistent cough, it is crucial to provide them with ample rest and relaxation. During sleep, the body’s natural healing mechanisms kick into high gear, allowing the immune system to combat the underlying causes of the cough.

By encouraging children to take it easy and engage in calm activities, such as snuggling up with you, or reading stories together, we can give their bodies the time and energy they need to recover. Additionally, rest helps reduce the strain on their respiratory system, allowing it to heal more efficiently.

Create a soothing environment

Providing a comfortable and soothing environment for your child can aid in alleviating their persistent cough. Ensure the room is well-ventilated and free from irritants such as cigarette smoke, strong perfumes, or dust.

Offer plenty of fluids

Keeping your child hydrated is essential when dealing with a persistent cough. Breast or bottle feed on demand, and offer frequent sips of water day and night for babies over 6 months, or age-appropriate fluids to prevent throat dryness and to help loosen mucus.

For toddlers over 12 months, warm liquids like lemon juice and honey, herbal tea (check that they are child-friendly, containing no caffeine, sweeteners, or artificial ingredients), or diluted fruit juices can also provide relief by soothing the throat. Ask your naturopath or GP before offering tea or juice.

Use a saline solution

For infants or toddlers with nasal congestion contributing to the cough, a saline solution can help clear the nasal passages. Use a bulb syringe or a nasal aspirator to gently suction mucus from the nostrils after instilling a few drops of saline solution in each nostril. This will promote better breathing and reduce coughing triggered by postnasal drip.

Honey for children over 12 months

Honey has natural soothing properties and can be an effective remedy for persistent coughing in children over the age of one. Offer a teaspoon of honey before naps and bedtime, or mix a teaspoon of honey with warm water or a non-caffeinated herbal tea. Please note that honey should not be given to infants under one year old due to the risk of infant botulism.

Avoid irritants and allergens

Identifying and avoiding potential triggers is crucial in managing a persistent cough. Common irritants include cigarette smoke, strong cleaning products, pet dander, and dust mites. Minimise exposure to these irritants to prevent further irritation of the airways.

Seek medical advice

If your child’s persistent cough is accompanied by other concerning symptoms such as high fever, difficulty breathing, chest pain, or prolonged periods of poor appetite or lethargy, it is essential to consult a healthcare professional. They can provide a proper diagnosis, identify any underlying conditions, and recommend appropriate treatment.

While most persistent coughs are harmless and resolve on their own, there are instances when medical attention is necessary:

  1. High fever (above 38°C) accompanied by coughing
  2. Difficulty breathing, rapid breathing, or wheezing
  3. Signs of dehydration (e.g., decreased urine output, dry mouth, lethargy)
  4. Blue lips or face
  5. Coughing up blood or mucus that is green or yellow

If your child exhibits any of these symptoms, consult your healthcare professional immediately.

Your questions answered about some of the other cough treatments

What about elevating their cot mattress?

Red Nose Australia advises against elevating cot mattresses for sleep. It is recommended to keep the mattress flat and firm to provide a stable surface for the baby to sleep on to reduce the risk of SUDI (sudden unexpected death in infancy).

What about using humidifiers or vapourisers?

Despite the claims made by many manufacturers, there is a lack of scientific evidence to support the health benefits of humidifiers in relieving congestion in children. Moreover, the use of warm mist humidifiers poses a significant risk of burns to children, and there are also concerns about inadequate cleaning leading to potential health hazards. Excessive humidity created by humidifiers can create an environment conducive to the growth of moulds and bacteria, which can further exacerbate respiratory issues. Additionally, vaporisers function similarly to warm mist humidifiers but also involve heating and evaporating essential oils.

What about using steam therapy in the bathroom?

Running a hot shower and sitting in the bathroom with your little one might seem like a good remedy to soothe coughs in children, but it is not recommended. First, there is a risk of burns or scalds if the child gets too close to hot steam or hot water. Children may not be able to handle hot temperatures safely, and accidents can occur.

Second, inhaling hot steam can lead to irritation of the airways and potentially exacerbate coughing or breathing difficulties in some individuals, especially those with underlying respiratory conditions such as asthma.

What about cough medicines/lollies?

Cough medicines are not recommended for young children as they are ineffective and can be harmful.


A persistent cough in babies and toddlers can be worrisome for parents, but in most cases, it is not a cause for alarm. Understanding the common causes and implementing appropriate home remedies can provide relief for your child. However, if you notice any severe symptoms or are unsure about the nature of your child’s cough, it is always best to consult a healthcare professional for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. Remember, you are not alone in this journey, and with the right care, your little one will soon be back to their healthy, happy selves.

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