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9 Ways to Help Your Sick Child Sleep, According to a Doctor

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When your little one’s sick with a cold, one of the hardest parts of the day might be the night. If symptoms are keeping your child from getting sleep, it’s unlikely that anyone else in the house will get any sleep, either. 

As tempting as it may be to give them some cough and cold medicine, that’s unlikely to do much good, says Brandon Smith, MD, MPH, a pediatrician with Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Unfortunately, most don’t really work,” he says. (In particular, one common decongestant, phenylephrine, sold under brand names like Sudafed and Dayquil, was recently discovered to be completely ineffective and has since been pulled off many shelves.) Tylenol or — for those over six months — Motrin can help if your child has a fever or is in pain, but Dr. Smith recommends keeping use minimal. 


So what can help a child with a cold feel better enough to finally doze off? Dr. Smith says it depends on both their age and their symptoms. With that in mind, here are a few of his top recommendations. 

Use a nasal saline spray

If the cold is mostly in their nose, whether it’s runny or congested, a nasal saline spray can help to flush it out. “If you can convince them to use some before bed, [that can] clear out some of the nasal passages before they try to fall asleep,” says Dr. Smith. This solution is safe for any age. 

Try suction to release the snot

As awkward as it might feel to do, using a suctioning device can help clear out the nostrils of infants and young toddlers who can’t yet blow their noses. This can be particularly effective after using a nasal saline spray to loosen things up. Dr. Smith just recommends not doing it more than three or four times a day. Otherwise, you could actually increase irritation and swelling. 

Rub menthol ointment on their chest   

For kids older than two with stuffy noses, Dr. Smith recommends a common home remedy: massaging a menthol rub on your kiddo’s chest (then covering it with a t-shirt or pajamas so they don’t try to put any in their mouth). “There’s some good studies out there that a little menthol rub on the chest can actually give patients more sleep at night compared to when they only use Vaseline,” says Dr. Smith. He says that’s likely because the menthol can help open up the nasal passageways to help the child breathe a little better. 


Turn on a humidifier in the bedroom

It’s harder to breathe through a stuffy nose when the indoor atmosphere is dry. A humidifier can help moisturize the air so that it flows better through the nasal passages, says Dr. Smith. It can also help loosen up phlegm if your little one has a cough. These are safe for any age “as long as you’re cleaning them routinely,” says Dr. Smith. (Though you might want to keep them out of reach of toddler-aged hands.)

Make the bathroom into a steam room

If your child can’t stop coughing, let them play with those bath toys as long as they want before getting in their PJs. “Maybe have a longer bath or shower time right before bed,” says Dr. Smith. “The steam can help clear out some of the stuff that’s dripping down in the back of their throat and causing them to cough.” If you have an infant, fill up the bath and get in there with them to keep them safe while you both soak up the benefits of the steam.

Serve up a little honey

If a cough is the primary symptom you’re dealing with, a teaspoon of honey could help soothe their throat. “You could mix it in warm water or warm tea in the evening,” says Dr. Smith. But this should only be done after a child is one year old — honey occasionally contains bacteria that infant digestive systems aren’t ready to handle.  

Prop their head up on extra pillows

For older kids (school age and above), Dr. Smith says it’s perfectly fine to have them lie on an extra pillow or two to bring the head up higher. “It’s helping their nose to drain a little bit more and maybe their sinuses stay a little bit clearer,” he says. 

But remember, always keep sleeping infants flat on their back — and alone in their crib, for that matter. “As a parent, you want to comfort them and make sure that they’re feeling okay and watch over them. But they should still be sleeping alone in their crib on their back,” says Dr. Smith.

Consider a little melatonin (carefully)

Dr. Smith says many parents these days are experimenting with melatonin in pre-teens and teens who have trouble sleeping. He says a small dose can be safe and might be helpful, but since melatonin is not FDA-regulated, you’ll want to look for a product that has a seal on the packaging to indicate that it’s gone through some testing. 

Stick with your regular routine

When your little one’s not feeling great, it can be tempting to skip some of your normal bedtime steps and tuck them right in. But that’s a mistake, particularly with toddlers, says Dr. Smith. “Toddlers love consistency and expectations and knowing that you know that routine for them,” he says. Following the same schedule helps them mentally prep for bedtime, no matter their symptoms.

If symptoms linger, call the doctor

Dr. Smith says that the worst cold symptoms typically last a few days, and will generally make sleep the hardest on night three or four. If your child’s a week into a cold, and they’re still struggling to sleep at night, he suggests hopping on a call with a pediatrician. While he and his colleagues have seen a number of colds and viruses this winter that cause coughs to hang on for weeks, it’s worth checking to make sure nothing else is going on.

Before you go, check out these natural solutions for your kid’s cold symptoms:

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