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Why Do Newborns Sneeze Frequently And When To Worry?

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Sneezing is a normal protective reflex that babies are born with (1). Newborns sneeze more than adults as they are still acclimatizing with the dust, dirt, germs, and other external factors they encounter outside the womb. Therefore, your newborn could be sneezing more on some days than others, but that does not necessarily mean that there is something to worry about.

In this MomJunction article, we address your queries about sneezing in babies, its causes, and how you can help the baby feel better at home.

Why Do Babies Sneeze?

Sneezing is one of the body’s natural defenses against illness (2). It is basically a protective reflex provided by nature , to discard any mucus or foriegn body. However, there are several other reasons why a newborn or an infant would sneeze:

  1. Clearing of germs and irritants from the nose: Sneezing is the body’s natural reflex to clear nasal passages that have an irritant within. For a baby, anything including dust, smoke, milk that accidentally got into the nose, and even dry air can be an irritant. A sneeze helps them get rid of these irritants as well as germs.
  1. Expel mucus: Infants cannot blow their nose like adults do (3). Therefore, when they have nasal congestion due to mucus, they will sneeze as a natural reaction to throw out the mucus.
  1. Short nasal passages: Newborns are obligate nose breathers, which means they primarily depend on their nose for breathing and do not prefer breathing from the mouth (4). However, the nasal passages of the baby are tiny, and even the smallest obstruction in it can affect breathing. For instance, a baby may sneeze even when their nose presses against the chest of the mother while breastfeeding.
  1. Dry air: Cold weather, which at times gets excessively dry, and the overuse of indoor air conditioning, could rapidly dry nasal moisture. This is acutely bothersome for babies and leads to sneezing and a runny discharge.
  1. Regurgitated milk: For a few days after birth, babies regurgitate milk. This backflow of milk leads to irritation of the nasal lining. This, at times, could lead to swelling in the nasal passage, which makes those stuffy and the little one sneeze..
  1. Deviated nasal septum: A significant number of babies are born with nasal septum deviation (5). Nasal septum deviation is a condition in which the thin wall between the nasal passage is displaced to one side. This leads to narrowing of one side of the passage and impacting the breathing (grunting sound during breathing), which in turn causes a stuffy nose.

A newborn baby is most likely to sneeze due to the above reasons. However, if they are sneezing too frequently, you may check for signs that may not seem normal and warrant medical intervention.

What Sneezing May Not Be Normal?

Frequent sneezing, when accompanied by one or more of these conditions, could point to a problem that requires medical attention:

  1. Fever: A body temperature of above 100.4°F (38°C) is considered a fever in infants (6). If the baby has a fever along with sneezing, then it might be due to an infection of the respiratory tract.
  1. Cold: The symptoms of cold include a runny nose, coughing, lethargy, and sometimes fever. A common cold is known to cause sneezing too (7).
  1. Coughing and wheezing: If the baby coughs, sneezes, and wheezes, then they may have an allergy, and possibly inhaled a potential allergen, such as pollen,dust or even perfume smell (8). This causes the body to react with sneezing and other symptoms of an allergy.
  1. Fussiness, lethargy, and poor appetite: If the baby is fussy, colicky, lethargic, and shows little interest in eating, then it could indicate some illness generally of the respiratory tract.
  1. Sneezing with yellowish coloured discharge means infection.
  1. Rapid bursts of sneezing: Maternal usage of narcotics during pregnancy can result in neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) – a type of drug withdrawal condition (9). One of the symptoms of the syndrome is sneezing in bursts of three to four in fixed intervals (10). For example, the baby will sneeze three to four times more rapidly in every half hour or an hour.

See a doctor if the baby displays any of these symptoms along with sneezing. If the baby’s sneezes are continuous and frequent, take them to a doctor, who can diagnose the cause behind the sneezing Saline drops can clear the nasal passages.

You don’t have to worry if the baby sneezes a couple of times, for it could just be a reflex. Stay alert to signs of illness, and you could detect the exact cause of sneezing. Treatment and home remedies will keep their nasal passages clear and prevent sneezing.

Do you have any experiences to share? Tell us about them in the comments section below.

References:

1. Newborn Reflexes and Behavior; Seattle Children’s Hospital (2019)
2. Stuffy Nose, Sneezing, and Hiccups in Newborns; University of California
3. Whooping Cough Can Kill; University of Utah
4. M.J. Miller et al., Oral breathing in newborn infants; National Center for Biotechnology Information (1985)
5. Anil S. Harugop et al.; Prevalence of Nasal Septal Deviation in New-borns and Its Precipitating Factors: A Cross-Sectional Study; National Center for Biotechnology Information (2011)
6. Signs and Symptoms of Fever; American Academy of Pediatrics
7. Kuender D. Yang et al.; Prevalence of infant sneezing without colds and prediction of childhood allergy diseases in a prospective cohort study; National Center for Biotechnology Information (2018)
8. Ilknur Haberal Can et al.; Sneezing and Runny Nose: Should Allergy Testing Be Routinely Performed?; National Center for Biotechnology Information (2011)
9. Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome; Health Encyclopedia, University of Rochester Medical Center
10. Withdrawal Scoring Sheet; Stanford Medicine