What’s causing my baby to cough at night?


by Lorna White |
Updated on

Listening to your baby cough can be tough to hear, especially if it’s keeping them awake at night.

While it's normal for a cough to get worse at night, we know how vital sleep and rest are to getting over any illness, so it's important to understand what's causing this baby cough at night, so you can combat the issue and help them get enough sleep and rest to feel better.

Do they have a cold?

If your baby is snuffly and bunged up with a cold, they may also develop a cough.

‘It’s caused by infections in the upper respiratory tract – the nose, sinuses and throat – and can cause a wet, phlegmy cough or a dry cough,’ says GP Naomi Potter. ‘You won’t know if your baby is bringing up phlegm because he’ll swallow it rather than spitting it out.’

When laying down, this fluid drains down your child's throat, triggering them to cough during the night.

How to treat it

Most mild coughs caused by colds can be treated at home. ‘Make sure your baby gets plenty of rest and offer extra breastfeeds or bottle feeds so he gets enough fluid to fight off the infection,’ says Naomi. ‘If they have a temperature, you can treat it with infant paracetamol or ibuprofen to bring it down.’

Make sure your baby gets plenty of rest and offer extra breastfeeds or bottle feeds so he gets enough fluid to fight off the infection

You may be quick to reach for the cough medicines, but there’s still a lot of debate over whether they work. ‘They may work in older children by having a placebo effect – which is when a person’s symptoms improve through their belief that they will, rather than the actual medicine,’ says Naomi. ‘But in younger babies and toddlers, they don’t really make much difference and are often high in sugar which isn’t good for your child’s teeth.’


This is a more serious cough. ‘Look out for a hacking cough, with your baby looking very unwell, floppy and feverish,’ says Naomi. ‘They may go off their food.’

Bronchiolitis is caused when the smallest airways of the lungs get infected, becoming swollen and filled with mucus. This blocks the flow of air, making it harder for your baby to breathe.

How to treat it

‘It’s caused by a virus, so you can’t be prescribed antibiotics by your GP as they only work on bacterial infections,’ says Naomi. However, it should clear up in a few weeks. You could sit with your baby in a steamy bathroom to help relax their airways and ease any coughing symptoms.

Related: RSV in babies


This cough has a very distinctive sound. ‘It sounds like a seal barking,’ says Naomi. ‘It usually affects babies from the age of six months and your child may wake up in the night coughing. They may also sound like they're struggling to breathe, which can be quite scary for parents.’

Croup sounds like a seal barking

How to treat it

If your baby is struggling to breathe, take them straight to your GP, or A&E if it happens in the night. ‘Sometimes taking your baby out into the cold air can help to alleviate breathing problems. Your GP may also prescribe steroids.’ As croup is often accompanied by typical cold symptoms, your baby will probably feel better if you treat those, too.

Whooping cough (pertussis)

As the name suggests, you should listen out for a distinctive “whooping” sound. ‘It’s characterised by bouts of intensive coughing and a whoop sound as the patient takes a quick breath between coughs,’ says Naomi. It can be a very serious condition in very young babies so it’s important that you take your little one to your GP if you’re concerned, and to A&E if they're really struggling to breathe.

How to treat it

Young babies (usually those under 12 months), will be admitted to hospital and given antibiotics and steroid medication to reduce inflammation in the airways. Your baby will receive whooping cough vaccinations when they're two, three and four months old, which is why it’s the very young babies that are most at risk.

Listen out for a distinctive “whooping” sound

However, if you’re pregnant, you can get a whooping cough jab when you’re between 28 and 38 weeks pregnant and this will provide protection for your baby when they're born.


Some infants can suffer from asthma, so if your baby is breathing fast, has flared nostrils and exaggerated belly movements when breathing, persistent coughing, wheezing, and tiredness, it's worth taking them to the GP to check they're not suffering from Asthma.

How to treat it

The most common way to treat asthma is through inhaled medicines. Small children might be given a nebulizer (a kind of inhaler which is fitted to the head) and your GP should put together an Asthma Action Plan so you know how to act in the case of an Asthma attack.

Other ways to help relieve your baby coughing at night

Invest in a humidifier - just like a hot bath or shower helps relieve symptoms of a cold, having a humidifier in your baby's room can help regulate the moisture levels in the air, making it easier for your tot to breathe.

Raise their head - for babies over six months, place something under their mattress to slightly raise their heads to help them breathe easier. Babies under six months must lie flat to reduce the risk of SIDS.

Honey and lemon - For children aged over one, try giving them a spoonful of honey mixed with lemon in warm water before bed to help soothe their throat and cough.

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