How to Tell the Difference Between a Real and Fake Baby Cough

How to Tell the Difference Between a Real and Fake Baby Cough

There’s nothing more terrifying to new parents than when your baby gets sick for the first time. It’s not something you forget easily - the coughing, the crying, the fever. The entire time your little person is miserable … which means you are too!

At 9 months old, my oldest son went through a phase of dry-coughing (pre-Covid times a cough didn’t have the sinister sound as it does today). Out came my thermometer and the giant tackle box of medical supplies!

Was he sick again? Should I call the paediatrician? Did I need to rush out and buy baby meds? What was going on here?

After taking time to carefully observe my son, I felt something was just a wee bit off. He didn’t have any other markers of illness - no fever, rash, runny nose or other trouble sleeping. 

So, I did a little sleuthing. What I came across was an interesting baby phenomena that might explain what was going on with my little guy: the fake baby cough.   

How to Tell Fake Baby Cough vs. Real Baby Cough

Paying close attention to the symptoms is the key to telling the difference between a real cough and a fake one. You know the patterns and behaviours of your baby better than anyone else - trust your instincts if something does not feel right. 

So how to tell between a fake baby cough and real cough? 

Real baby coughs are usually accompanied by other signs of distress, such as:

  • Rapid, raspy, or laboured breathing;
  • Wheezing, sniffling, or sneezing; 
  • Coughing is persistent for longer than a few minutes; 
  • Crying or fussing; 
  • A high temperature, red face, or sweating; 
  • Choking or having trouble catching their breath; 
  • A rash and/or swelling in the face, hands, or feet; 
  • Not eating as much or less often. 

It may be a fake baby cough if:

  • Baby is giggling, laughing, or smiling; 
  • No accompany symptoms or signs of distress; 
  • Baby only coughs when you are looking;
  • Breathing is normal.
  • The “cough” sounds half-hearted or a bit like a laugh.

If your baby has any type of cough - even if you think it is fake - it’s always best to get your baby checked out by a doctor. A cough can mean your baby has a simple cold, or something more serious like a respiratory infection or croup

Bottom Line: You never want to wait and risk a worsening illness when it can be detected and treated at the early stages. 

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Is it Normal for a Baby to Fake Cough?

Yes, it is completely normal if your baby fake coughs.   

According to paediatrician Daniel Ganjian, fake coughing is part of a “behavioural mannerism” in which a baby makes babbling (and often alarming) noises as they learn how to speak and communicate. 

This is perfectly normal behaviour for babies to adopt. It’s part of how they discover themselves and the world around them. Babies may fake cough for the following reasons: 

  • For attention
  • For fun
  • To explore sound
  • Detection of their salivary glands

While concerning to parents at first (and possibly a little annoying), fake-coughing is not dangerous or harmful to the baby. 

So long as it doesn’t become an obsessive habit or progress into something serious, there’s no harm in your baby fake-coughing once in a while.

Baby Fake Coughing: What Are the Causes?

Babies are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. From the moment they are aware of the wider world around them, they’re figuring out ways to manipulate that world to get what they want or need.

So, of all the crazy, cute, or loud ways for babies to grab their parent’s attention, why the fake coughing? 

Here are a few reasons your baby may cough-cough-cough: 

Reason #1: Hey, Look At Me!

Fake-coughing gets your attention. To babies, attention = affection. 

It doesn’t matter the type of attention you are giving your baby, all the baby knows is that when they cough, they have your full and undivided attention. 

If you are looking to meaningfully interact with your baby, try a fun baby toy like the Dingle Dangle that may take their attention away from coughing. 


Reason #2: Imitation

You give a little cough. Baby thinks it’s amusing and coughs, too. You laugh at him and mimic his little facade, and before you know it: game on! 

Babies watch their parents like hawks. They know how to imitate parents in completely unexpected and amazing ways. It’s how babies learn to talk, act and interact with the world around them. 

This is the same for a cough.  

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Your coughing little baby might just be trying to flatter you in the most unexpected way. 

Reason #3: Is this my superpower?

It could be that your baby has discovered he can salivate. In his little mind, he’s utterly amazed he can make more water in his mouth and experiments with it.

In playing around with this newfound ability, he or she may not have figured out what to do with the extra saliva they’re making. It runs to the back of their throat, causing them to cough. 

This isn’t particularly dangerous - we’ve all swallowed liquids down the wrong tube before. They’ll quickly learn that it’s not a pleasant sensation and to either stop, learn to swallow in time, or let themselves drool.

Reason #4: And for my next joke…

Fake-coughing could be a baby's way of playing a little joke. The endorphins released from laughter are pretty addictive. 

Their little trick of fake-coughing makes them giggle, which makes you giggle when you realise what they are up to. This only encourages them to do it more. 

There is a chance that your little trickster can have you worried for no reason at all. Trust us, this won’t be the last joke played on you for the next 18 years.   

What To Do If Baby Is Fake Coughing: Some Quick Tips

Now that we know about why a baby may fake cough, here are a few quick tips on what to do if your baby is fake coughing:   

  1. First and foremost, if your baby is coughing, check to make sure there are no other accompanying signs of illness. Don’t hesitate to contact your paediatrician or other specialist to discuss the behaviour. The worst thing you can do is assume it is a fake cough and be wrong. 
  2. Once you are sure there’s nothing serious behind the coughing, the best thing to do is just to wait it out. It won’t take long for the baby to become enthralled by something entirely new.
  3. To avoid encouraging this temporary behaviour into becoming a frequent habit, pretend to ignore it. Look away when they fake-cough. Avoid looking alarmed or anxious.
  4. Avoid punishing the behavior. I learned very quickly with my own son that negative attention is still attention, and babies and children will do anything for attention including crying, screaming, wriggling and coughing. Once they figure out they’re not getting any kind of attention out of it they’ll soon get bored of the game and move on to the next new thing.
  5. Try addressing their basic need for attention and learning by playing sound games with them. Babies pick up and repeat basic vowel sounds the best - “ah,” “oh,” “oo,” “eh,” and “ee,” for example.

Make it a fun game by adding big facial expressions and giving them praise when they attempt to copy these word sounds. Play it with them every day when you can and pretty soon they’ll drop the fake coughing kick.

Baby Fake Coughing: Bundling It All Up

Let’s tuck in this issue of fake-coughing and put it to bed. If you hear or see your baby coughing, first, check on them and make sure there isn’t anything serious behind it. 

It might be hard to tell at first, but if baby has a real cough there will be accompanying symptoms of distress like:

  • Wheezing, gurgling, rasping, or hacking
  • Short, rapid breathing
  • Trouble catching their breath
  • Their face is turning red
  • Rash, bumps, or swelling, especially around the face and hands
  • Crying or fussing, and possibly not eating as much or as often
  • They will cough for longer and more often

Check for fever, sweating, or other signs of illness or allergic reaction. If you are not sure, do not hesitate to call your paediatrician!

If you determine your baby really is fake coughing, they’re likely doing it for one of three primary reasons:

  1. They’re exploring sounds.
  2. They want your attention.
  3. The noise - or your reaction to the noise - amuses them.

A fake cough here and there is perfectly normal. It’s part of the healthy mental and social development of your baby and it won’t hurt them one little bit.

Of course, you don’t want your baby “crying wolf” with their fake coughing, so try not to encourage it by giving it your attention. Remember: Negative attention (punishing them or becoming anxious or upset) is still attention!

If simply ignoring baby’s fake coughing does not work, try redirecting their attention with toys or a new game. Take advantage of their need to learn to communicate by encouraging them to make simple word sounds (“ah,” “ee,” “oh”) and reward them with praise and hugs when they try to copy you. 

This kind of “game” satisfies two needs by both helping them learn and giving them your coveted attention and affection!

Sure, fake coughing is alarming and sometimes annoying, but have patience - they will quickly grow out of it!


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