The 'snot sucker' and more: how to clear a baby's blocked nose

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock 

It's that time of year again – as soon as we start thinking about winding the clocks back, everyone seems to come down with a cold.

It's bad enough as adults when we get that awful congested feeling, but when you've got a baby who's bunged up, you can feel so helpless as they struggle to breathe through a blocked nose and sore throat. 

I've noticed chemists don't miss a merchandising opportunity and cold season is a prime time for them. Much like supermarkets had their hot cross buns out as soon as we'd shouted "happy new year", chemists have got a whiff of the cooler weather and are stocking the ends of their aisles with every cold and flu device they've got.

But are these products safe for babies, and which are the most effective?

My local chemist seems to be stuffed to the brim with a range of products that promise to help clear up young children's noses, and the internet is teeming with websites offering solutions. 

The two main products are saline sprays and aspirators.

Saline sprays aren't practical to use with babies, but they can be useful for children from the age of two. Some saline products also come in drops that can be used on babies.

Then there are the aspirators, which come in a range of designs – the least offensive of which is a bulb that, when pressed, sucks mucous from inside your baby's nose. 

The more confronting aspirator device requires you as a loving parent or guardian to suck on the end of a tube that has its other end inserted gently into your baby's nostril. There is a mechanism that stops you sucking that mucous all the way back to your mouth, but the process is still a confronting one, no matter how much you love that child.


Dr Scott Dunlop of Sydney Paediatrics and Kids Consult says most often babies and small children are fine without medication or any devices to help clear them up, so there's no need to use anything at all.

"Colds are common," he says. "They usually don't cause too many issues, and will eventually self-resolve."

But listening to your baby struggle to breathe can be tough, and if you want to ease their suffering a little bit, Dr Dunlop says saline solution can definitely help.

"Fess is the mainstay," he says. "Either by itself as a spray or drops, or then using an aspirator afterwards to remove mucous."

Dr Dunlop warns it's important to be careful when using saline solution though, to follow directions and not to use too often throughout the day.

"I warn against overusing nasal sprays," he says, "They can irritate the nasal lining."

It's also important not to insert the dropper inside the nostril, but rather to drop the solution in from outside the nose. Ensure you have washed your hands before and after, and don't use the same dropper among various family members to avoid cross-contamination.

Dr Dunlop says aspirators can be useful in the short term, but they're not going to solve the problem.

"[Aspirators] don't always do very much," he says. "And if they do, the mucous just reaccumulates, so repeated procedures are needed."

Dr Dunlop says the most common mistake parents make when their baby has a cold is, "Looking for cures – there aren't any!"

As much as it pains us to see our children uncomfortable or in pain, most colds will come and go – perhaps causing some lost sleep for parents and child, but without any lasting damage.

Dr Dunlop says there's usually nothing to worry about unless baby stops feeding normally, or if they have difficulty breathing. Then you should seek medical advice as soon as possible.