Croup, Stridor, and Your Toddler: What New Parents Need to Know to Breathe Easy

What's that weird cough your kid has? What is stridor? Why does everyone keep saying croup? Am I cool? I can't help you on the last one, but I've got answers lined up for croup and stridor after our toddler got it this week. |

What's that weird cough your kid has? What is stridor? Why does everyone keep saying croup? Am I cool? I can't help you on the last one, but I've got answers lined up for croup and stridor after our toddler got it this week. |


How many colds have you had in your life?

Eleventy billion?

That's still less than the average toddler. Little known scientific fact: Toddlers always have a cold. They get them from daycares and ball pits and playgrounds and terrorists. 

The big difference? A cold might mess up your week. But with infants and toddlers? Getting a common cold can get much worse, really fast.

If you're in any parenting text chain/Facebook group/cult, you've likely seen a frantic post from a parent wondering what to do with their sick kid. The giveaway? "Sounds like a barking cough."

That, my friends, is croup.

Croup, despite common belief, is not crappy soup that you sent back because it's bland. Croup is an upper respiratory infection that "obstructs breathing and causes a characteristic barking cough." It can come with a fever and hoarse voice and usually occurs in children ages 6 months to 3 years. It usually occurs a few days after the start of a cold and is worst at night.

My kids have had croup before. Forgive the pun, but it's barking cough is worse than it's bite. You know what? Don't forgive the pun. I don't need your forgiveness. Anyway, croup usually goes away on its own in 3-5 days, according to information from our doctor*.

(* As with all medical things, it's best to get information from doctors and nurses and not Facebook comments. Have you seen the dumb things people say in Facebook comments? That's how you want to diagnose your kid? From the same place where your uncle posts conspiracy theory memes? For this post, I'm using info that came straight from medical professionals and my direct experience.)

What stridor sounds like

Stridor? That's worse. My 2 1/2-year-old toddler, Hannah, got croup and stridor over the weekend. Stridor causes difficulty breathing. It's a harsh sound like your kid is sucking in air.

Imagine my poor toddler, barking like a sad seal and trying to catch her breath. And then imagine that this all happened within a matter of hours. After a restless night where we had hoped she'd get better, we called the on-call nursing hotline with our doctor's office.

They recommended 20 minutes in a steamed up room. If that worked? She'll be fine. If not? A trip to the emergency room. No pressure, steam. God, I'm killing it with puns today.

Anyway, I stuck my kids in a room with the shower and humidifier on. We had it going nice and hot like a fitness club sauna but with less elderly nudity. The steam didn't work — she sounded bad.

(Guys, I'll be really candid here. My wife and I don't take respiratory stuff lightly. Our other twin daughter almost died because of respiratory distress when she was a baby. This wasn't nearly as serious, but when you're going to the same hospital for similar issues, it feels more intense. Nobody wants their kid in the ER, but with us, maybe even more so.)

What we had hoped at the start would be a quick trip to the doctor the next day ended up being a marathon — an all-day stop in the ER that led to an overnight stay in pediatrics as Hannah wasn't responding quickly enough to medication.

In her case, doctors tried to relieve stridor with breathing treatments and oral steroids (We had it mixed into applesauce! They evidently had never done that before. That's how we roll.). The breathing treatments were similar to what I got as a kid growing up with asthma; fun fact - I had moderate asthma growing up that, as it turns out, seems to almost entirely have been caused by me not knowing I was allergic to cats! Cats=lung murder

It took more than 24 hours in the hospital getting treatments for Hannah to start breathing easy, which meant we could breathe easy. Hahahahaha just kidding toddler parents never breathe easy because toddlers are insane. But, you know. Easier. And we realized that we hadn't known much of anything about stridor. I'm hoping this post gives you a heads up in case you're facing the same thing. It's going to be OK!

What should you do if you think your baby or toddler has something more than just a cold?

Here's some things to keep in mind as a new parent with a kid who sounds like they have breathing difficulties:

What croup sounds like

  • You're not being crazy. Your main job is to help protect your kids. Nobody else is going to be as good of an advocate as you are. So if you think your daughter's cough doesn't sound great and you want to get it checked out, get it checked out*! With respiratory issues, it's better to be on the safe side.
  • If your child's rib cages are really sucking in when they are breathing, that can be a dangerous situation. If this is occurring or if they have a bluish tint in their skin or fingernails, seek medical help immediately.
  • Call your doctor if your child:
    • Has new/worse trouble breathing
    • Has dehydration symptoms like being thirstier than usual
    • Seems very sick or is hard to wake up
    • Has a new or higher fever
    • Has a cough that is getting worse (This was our clue)
  • With croup, the cough comes at nighttime and has a barking sound to it. It really is a case of "you'll know it when you hear it." My son had it before, and he was mostly fine during the day and at night sounded like Sea World.
  • Things you can try at home first, according to a nurse: Steam (humidifier or shower does the trick) and getting cool, fresh air can do wonders if breathing seems difficult. Yes, that seems like contradictory advice. I swear sometimes doctors just say "Um, give that a whirl?" If those methods don't work, call your doctor.
  • It's a viral illness, so yes, your other kids can get sick. HOWEVER, every person responds differently so it's not a given he or she would get as sick. One baby might just have a runny nose, and the other one might end up in the ER; we've had that situation.
  • Little kids get croup and stridor because they have smaller airways. That's why you don't hear about grown-ups with this. Good thing, because adults would complain a lot more.
  • Crying and coughing can make croup worse because you're agitating your airway, so it can be a bad cycle for kids. Keep them calm.
  • Can you prevent croup? Well, like most things, it's all about handwashing and keeping your kids away from sick kids. Good luck with that! But common sense is your guide here. Oh, and your family history can make your child more susceptible to croup, so congrats to your genetics on screwing them over one more time.

* I'll get on my soapbox for a moment and shout THIS IS WHY ALL KIDS NEED HEALTH INSURANCE COVERAGE. No kid should have something like stridor and not get treatments that would make them feel better within a day because their parents can't afford the ER trip. We're fortunate to have excellent health coverage and already met our deductible this year (hello, three toddlers) so this trip was essentially free. We shouldn't make parents and guardians have to decide.