Why your child might be coughing in their sleep

If your child coughs while sleeping, it's most likely a cold, allergies, or asthma. To help relieve their cough, make sure they're drinking plenty of fluids and use a humidifier in their room. Only give your child cough medicine if they're at least 6 years old and you have your pediatrician's approval. If the cough doesn't go away, is especially severe, or your child has other symptoms – like a fever or difficulty breathing – see your pediatrician.

child resting on a mother’s leg who is sitting on a couch
Photo credit: / Liderina

If your child has a cough, it's normal for it to get worse at night. More often than not, a nighttime cough is a symptom of allergies, a cold, or another illness.

What causes coughing in your child?

Here are some common causes for your child’s cough:

Advertisement | page continues below
  • A cold. If your child has a cold, their cough can be either wet or dry, and it'll come with other symptoms such as congestion, runny nose, and/or sore throat.
  • Post-nasal drip is also a common reason your child might be coughing. Your little one's cough will be wet and productive, which is the body's way of getting rid of mucus and phlegm. Other symptoms of post-nasal drip include itchy eyes, nose, and throat; watery eyes; and a runny nose.
  • Allergies. Children can start becoming susceptible to seasonal allergies around 3 or 4 years old. Other symptoms of allergies include runny nose, sneezing, and itchy eyes or nose.
  • Asthma is also a common cause of a nighttime cough. If your child has asthma, their cough will typically be dry and will get worse during physical activity. An asthma cough can also be triggered by allergies and illness.
  • Whooping cough. If your child has whooping cough (also known as pertussis), they may make a "birdlike" whooping sound when they try to take breaths between coughs. While early signs of whooping cough are similar to that of a cold (sneezing and a runny nose), later signs include coughing up or vomiting mucus and coughing fits that last 20 to 30 seconds.
  • Croup. If your child has croup, the cough may need to be treated differently than other kinds of coughs, so talk to your pediatrician about the best course of action. Common signs of croup include a barking cough, noisy breathing, and a hoarse voice. Symptoms often worsen at night.
  • A sinus infection. If your child has a cold that just won't go away or persistent allergies, it could develop into a sinus infection. If your child has a cough that gets worse at night, signs that it's a sinus infection include congestion for more than 10 days, a low-grade fever, and pain in the jaw or behind the forehead or nose.
  • Another type of viral upper respiratory infection. It could be the flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), or COVID-19. Most coughs are caused by a viral upper respiratory infection and will go away on their own, though it could take several weeks.

What you can do about your child’s nighttime cough

Here are some ways you can help your child find relief from coughing:

  • Elevate the head of their bed to help with congestion.
  • Give your child extra fluids to keep them hydrated. If your child's throat is sore from coughing, warm drinks can help. Avoid carbonated beverages or citrus drinks like orange juice, since they can make a sore throat worse.
  • Run a humidifier in your child's bedroom to help decrease congestion and make breathing easier.
  • Try nasal suctioning with a bulb syringe or similar product, like a baby nasal aspirator, to help clear nasal passages and airways.
  • For coughs that sound "barky," steam from a shower may help relax the vocal cords and offer some relief. Turn on the hot water in the bathroom and close the door, allowing the room to steam up. Sit in the bathroom with your child for 20 minutes.
  • Give them a cough suppressant, but only if they're at least 6 years old. Always get your pediatrician's okay before giving your child cough medicine.

When to call the doctor about your child’s cough

A persistent cough could be a sign of a more serious health condition like asthma or a chronic sinus infection. Call your pediatrician if your child has a cough for longer than three weeks. If your child complains of difficulty breathing or is showing signs of respiratory distress (breathing hard or fast, flaring nostrils, sucking in between the ribs or collarbone to breathe), seek medical care right away.

Advertisement | page continues below
Follow your baby's amazing development

BabyCenter's editorial team is committed to providing the most helpful and trustworthy pregnancy and parenting information in the world. When creating and updating content, we rely on credible sources: respected health organizations, professional groups of doctors and other experts, and published studies in peer-reviewed journals. We believe you should always know the source of the information you're seeing. Learn more about our editorial and medical review policies.

Nemours Foundation. 2022. Coughing. a new window [Accessed January 2023]

Cleveland Clinic. 2022. Cough: Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Conditions. a new window [Accessed January 2023]

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Undated. Should You Give Kids Medicine for Coughs and Colds? a new window [Accessed January 2023]

Mayo Clinic. 2020. Pediatric obstructive sleep apnea. a new window [Accessed January 2023]

Raising Children Network. 2022. Colds in kids and toddlers. a new window [Accessed January 2023]

University of Utah Health. 2018. Home treatments for croup that will help your child's barking cough. a new window [Accessed January 2023]

American Academy of Pediatrics. 2012. Sleep Apnea Detection. a new window [Accessed January 2023]

Erin Heger

Erin Heger is a freelance journalist who writes about health, parenting, and social issues. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, HuffPost, Business Insider, and Rewire News Group. Born and raised in Kansas, she lives just outside Kansas City with her husband and three kids.