Oct. 28, 2013 at 7:43 PM ET
Your tyke’s incessant coughing is keeping him and the entire family up at night, and his poor little chest and tummy are sore from all the exertion. But doctors say you shouldn’t head to the pharmacy for an over-the-counter, medicated cough syrup—since they’re not considered safe for young children. So what can you do? Try one of these smart all-natural, home remedies to soothe your child’s harrowing hack.
Keep her head elevated
If your little sickie is over one, arrange a few pillows under her back, shoulders and head so that she can sleep in a slightly upright position, allowing for easier breathing. For a baby, place a pillow underneath her crib mattress to elevate the area where she rests her head.
Steam things up
Turn your bathroom into a steam room, recommends William Sears, M.D., pediatrician and author of The Baby Book and dozens of other childcare books. Run a hot shower, close the door, and sit inside with your child for 15 minutes before bed and again for 15 minutes in the morning. The steam helps loosen chest and nasal congestion, making it easier for kids to cough or blow it out. To keep your kid from getting bored, bring in a snack or books. While you’re in the steam room -- and if your child will let you -- drum on his back and chest (where the lungs are) to help break up congestion there. Use your open palms and clap harder than you would if you were burping him, but not so hard that it hurts him.
Use a humidifier
Keep the steam going in the nursery by running a cool-mist humidifier all night to keep your child’s airways clear and moist. In the morning, open the windows and air out the room for a bit; the humidity overnight may cause mold to grow.
Get a NoseFrida
Once the steam has done its job of loosening up mucus in your little hacker, encourage him to cough it out. For his nose, use a nasal aspirator to clear out his sinuses (most kids don’t master the art of blowing their nose until 4 or 5). A bulb syringe will do an okay job, but if you really want the Cadillac of snot suckers, the NoseFrida is best in class. Yes, you do literally suck mucus out of your tyke’s nose through a tube, but don’t be intimidated; the device’s ingenious design ensures that the nasty stuff will never touch your mouth.
Clear the nose
In addition to using a nasal aspirator, spray a saline solution in each of your child’s nostrils to loosen mucus a few times a day. Since post-nasal drip tickles the throat and mouth-breathing dries it out, keeping the nose un-stuffed is key to treating coughs.
Get sweet on honey
Because of major safety concerns, cough and cold medicines are no longer recommended for children under age six. What's more, honey treats nighttime coughing better than that over-the-counter stuff, according to research. The type of honey used in the studies was buckwheat, a darker, stronger-tasting variety, but all types should do the trick of soothing and coating scratchy throats. Give a spoonful to your child before bed and as needed. Since babies under one shouldn’t consume honey, you may need to be resourceful with your littlest ones. Kenneth Wible, M.D., medical director of the Pediatric Care Center at Children's Mercy Hospitals & Clinics in Kansas City, MO, has had success giving maple syrup to his youngest grandchildren.
Lift your ban on candy
Dr. Wible also says that sucking on sugar-free hard candy (for kids over four only) may offer “some kids some benefit” when it comes to quieting coughs. Don’t count on a ton of relief, but sweets make everyone feel a little better, right? While you’re in the candy aisle, pick up some mini Crunch bars for yourself—taking care of a sick kid is hard work!
Use a chest rub
For children older than two, massage some Vicks VapoRub on their chest, recommends Dr. Wible. A recent study found that while the medicated rub only lessened coughing slightly, it made coughing, congested kids feel much more comfortable at night. The product isn't recommended for children younger than two, however, since it can irritate the airways and increase mucus production, causing breathing difficulties in babies and toddlers.
Try an Internet rumor
Speaking of Vicks VapoRub, you may have been forwarded an email sometime in 2007 touting an unusual and “amazing” use for the ointment: The author claims that rubbing copious amounts of the stuff on the soles of your feet and then covering them up with socks will cure a cough. “Even persistent, heavy, deep coughing will stop in about 5 minutes and stay stopped for many, many hours of relief,” the email read. While the “research” cited in the email turned out to be bogus, many people—including several we know first-hand—still swear by the trick. It can’t hurt and if you’re at your wit’s end, give it a try. The worst that could happen? Smelly socks.
Encourage her to drink
We all know we’re supposed to “drink extra fluids” when we’re sick, but why? Does it really do anything? Yes, says Dr. Sears, staying hydrated can thin mucus secretions, which allows them to be expelled from your body more easily. Keep a drink by your child’s bed at night. Avoid orange juice, though, as it can irritate a throat that’s sore from coughing.
Don’t be afraid of milk
In your efforts to get your child to drink more, you may think you have to stick to water and juice. But milk, if your kiddo likes it, can do his body good. And it doesn’t, contrary to popular belief, increase mucus production; many studies have proven that association to be a complete myth. What it means: A few glasses of the white stuff won’t make your kid’s cough worse, but it will keep him hydrated. And the vitamin D is a boost to his wounded immune system.
Serve chicken soup
Though no one is sure why, studies have proven that chicken soup really does ease coughs and soothe sore throats. The best part: It doesn’t matter whether it’s homemade or comes from a can.
Get her to gargle
Chicken soup too much work? Take away the chicken, the noodles, and the veggies, and what do you have? Warm, salty water—which is another time-tested, expert-approved cough remedy. Again, no one’s really sure why this works, though it could be that the salt absorbs excess fluid from swollen throat tissues, temporarily reducing their size and making them less tender. What to do: Mix a teaspoon of salt in a cup of warm water and have your child gargle as many swigs as she can.
If your kiddo’s cough is dry and raspy, it could be caused by asthma or allergies. Try to remove as many irritants as you can from your home. Don’t wear perfume or use room fresheners; ban your dog or cat from your child’s room; remove stuffed animals (dust collectors) from the bed; and do not smoke in your home or anywhere near your child.
Know when to call the doctor
At-home remedies are great, but sometimes you need reinforcements. Here’s when to ring your pediatrician:
If your child is having great difficulty breathing that’s getting worse or his lips, face, or tongue have a blue or dusky color, call 911.
If your child has croup, an infection characterized by a loud, barking cough, you may want to take her outside (after you’ve taken her to the pediatrician, of course!). Cool night air is a time-tested remedy for the “barking seal” cough. And while some studies have cast doubt on the effectiveness of an outdoor stroll, try telling that to the millions of moms who’ve been quieting their childrens’ coughs by doing just that. A drive in the car with the windows cracked—even if it’s cold (just bundle up)—may do the trick, too.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.