November 21, 2023

Prevent Phlegm in Your Baby’s Throat With a Nasal Aspirator

Keeping your baby’s airways clear of mucus helps with breathing and feeding

Parent uses manual baby aspirator to open up nasal passages of baby.

When your baby gets congested, you just want to help them, especially because they can’t help themselves. A throat full of phlegm (mucus) can be especially troublesome for babies because they don’t yet know how to clear their throats with a good “Ahem!”

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That’s where you come to the rescue with a baby nose sucker, otherwise known as a nasal aspirator. Pediatrician Noah Schwartz, MD, explains what causes phlegm in babies, the nasal aspirators available and how to use them.

What causes throat phlegm in babies?

Phlegm is kind of icky, but it does serve a purpose. In normal amounts, it keeps tissues from drying out and helps get rid of dust and other particles your baby inhales. But when there’s too much phlegm in their nasal passages, it can make it difficult for them to breathe, as babies almost exclusively breathe from their nose. The phlegm can also drain down into their throat (postnasal drip) interfering with their ability to eat and making breathing even more difficult.

Several things can trigger extra mucus production in your infant.

“We most often think of things like upper respiratory infections causing phlegm,” says Dr. Schwartz. But a cold isn’t the only cause of excess mucus.

Common causes of throat phlegm in babies include:

  • Acid reflux. If your baby has acid reflux, stomach acid irritates their throat and nasal passages. Your baby‘s body responds by making extra mucus.
  • Allergies. Older babies and children may have allergies, but newborns typically don’t have the types of allergies that cause excess phlegm.
  • Colds, viruses and upper respiratory infections. Catching a cold can stimulate more phlegm in babies just like in adults. An infection in the lungs can also cause phlegm that your baby has to cough up.

“In addition, babies just have really small nasal passages and nostrils,” explains Dr. Schwartz. So, it doesn’t take much for your baby’s nose to get stuffy.

Why is it important to clear phlegm from your baby’s nose and throat?

Keeping your baby’s airways clear of mucus helps with breathing and feeding.

“But babies have a hard time clearing their nose and throat on their own,” says Dr. Schwartz. “They can’t clear their throats or blow their noses like toddlers can.”

You can provide relief from nasal congestion with a nasal aspirator. This device helps prevent mucus from getting into your baby’s throat. But once the mucus is already there, they have to cough it up.

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“You may get concerned when your baby coughs,” says Dr. Schwartz. “But don’t stop them from coughing. It’s a reflex and the only way for them to clear throat phlegm. That’s one of the reasons we don’t recommend cough medicine for children younger than 5.”

If you’re concerned about your infant’s cough or breathing, you should make an appointment with their pediatrician.

What is a nasal aspirator (baby nose sucker)?

Also known as a baby snot sucker, a nasal aspirator is a simple device for removing mucus from your baby’s nose. You can’t use a nasal aspirator in your baby’s mouth or throat. But clearing mucus from their nose keeps it from running down their throat.

Steps to remove phlegm from your baby’s nose

There are a few types of nasal aspirators. Each has its own instructions.

Before reaching for a nasal aspirator, Dr. Schwartz advises using saline nasal drops or spray in your baby’s nose. The saline loosens the mucus, making it easier to get out. You can get saline nasal drops or spray in drugstores without a prescription. Be sure to get one that says it’s safe for infants and doesn’t contain any medication.

How to use a suctioning bulb nasal aspirator

A suctioning bulb nasal aspirator is a rubber device with a round bulb and a tapered stem.

“This is the most common type of nasal aspirator,” says Dr. Schwartz. “New parents usually get one in the hospital to take home.”

Suctioning bulbs are inexpensive, readily available and can work well enough to give your baby relief. But they have a couple of drawbacks:

  • They’re difficult to clean out. “It’s pretty much impossible to clean the inside of a suctioning bulb unless you find one that unscrews,” states Dr Schwartz.
  • It’s easy to put the tip in too far. Babies have very short nostrils, and sticking the tip of the bulb in too far can damage nasal tissues.
  • You can’t see what’s coming out. Suctioning bulbs are typically not see-through, so you can’t tell how much mucus you remove.

To use a suctioning bulb:

  1. Follow the instructions for using saline nasal drops or spray.
  2. Squeeze the bulb, then gently insert only the very tip into your baby’s nostril.
  3. Slowly release the bulb to create suction that pulls out the mucus.
  4. Using a tissue, squeeze the bulb into the tissue several times to get rid of the removed mucus.
  5. Repeat with the other nostril.
  6. Wash the entire suctioning bulb with soap, rinse it well and let it air dry.

How to use an oral suction nasal aspirator

Oral suction nasal aspirators require you to use your mouth. You suck on the end of a tube to remove mucus from your baby’s nose.

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“This makes some parents a little squeamish, but there is a filter between your mouth and your baby’s nose,” explains Dr. Schwartz. So, there’s no risk of ending up with a mouth full of baby boogers.

Ick factor aside, research shows that parents generally like oral nasal aspirators better than suction bulbs. Dr. Schwartz prefers oral suction nasal aspirators because they’re:

  • Cleanable. You can take them apart and clean them. (And change that very important filter, if needed!)
  • Clear. The parts are clear plastic, so you can see how much mucus comes out.
  • Easy to control. You use your mouth to control the level of suction.
  • Safe. There’s a guard that keeps you from pushing the tip too far into your baby’s nostril.

To use an oral suction nasal aspirator:

  1. Follow the instructions for using saline nasal drops or spray.
  2. Insert the aspirator tip into your baby’s nostril.
  3. Place the mouthpiece in your mouth and suck in slowly to create suction.
  4. Repeat with the other nostril.
  5. Clean the nasal aspirator according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

How to use an electric nasal aspirator

Electric suction nasal aspirators work the same way as oral suction nasal aspirators. The difference is that instead of using your mouth to create suction, you simply turn on the device.

“Electric nasal aspirators are the most expensive,” says Dr. Schwartz. “But they work well for parents who don’t want to use the oral suction type.”

To use an electric nasal aspirator:

  1. Follow the instructions for using saline nasal drops or spray.
  2. Insert the aspirator tip into your baby’s nostril.
  3. Switch the device on. It may switch off automatically after several seconds.
  4. Repeat with the other nostril.
  5. Clean the device according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

“Unfortunately, there’s no magic trick to keeping your baby well and free of mucus all the time, and daycare can make this even more challenging,” says Dr. Schwartz.

In general, he recommends avoiding people who are sick if you can and washing your hands often. If you’re concerned that allergies or acid reflux might be causing throat phlegm in your baby, an appointment with your pediatrician is always the best course of action.

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