Most children figure out at some point that coughing and sneezing brings attention: looks, glances, “bless you’s”, tissues, medicine, or whatever else. So they do it. It is easy, fun, and prominent around them during the winter months. It is not uncommon for a baby as young as 6 or 9 months to start fake coughing or sneezing to get your attention. Babies this age normally fake cough because they want to “converse” with you. If you cough back, they’ll cough back again, and so forth. File it under preverbal development, and don’t worry about indulging it.
Eventually though, you’re going to get tired of it, and you can correct a toddler of 15 or 18 months for faking for attention. Just say something like, “Use words” or “No fake coughing now.” For a preschooler faking it (usually because someone else in class got attention for it, or because they got special tissue privileges), you can add more explanation… “Coughing is ok when it’s real but not when it’s fake. If you keep coughing, I’m going to think you’re sick.” If they persist, tell them innocently, “Wow, you are still coughing. You must be really sick. Let’s get ready for bed then!” Start going there or follow through just once, and they’ll give it up! (This works for sneezing, overusing tissues, fake stomachaches, or any overreacting problem.) Remember preschoolers are fascinated by bodies, and so things like sickness are intriguing. This is the age where they start to figure that stuff out.
Note: One way I could often tell if my preschoolers were trying to get a special privilege was the way they communicated to me. If they wanted something, they’d name it like, “(Cough). Oh mom, I need medicine.” That was pretty clear they just wanted to taste the stuff, especially if I’d been giving it ritually for a couple nights. But if they were actually sick they’d say something like, “(Cough). Mom, my mouth hurts.” This was code for “throat,” and then I could look in there and see if it was red. They did the same with hunger/food… “Mom, I’m hungry” was very different from “Mom, I need some chips.”
Now it’s ok for preschoolers to fake cough if you are going to practice covering the nose/mouth. Especially if you want them to use something other than their hand like their elbow or a tissue (kudos for this!). Most preschoolers need constant reminders to cover, and they will enjoy a parent-directed session where they get to fake it a bit =) But make sure you back up your lesson with discipline in reality for forgetting. Don’t just make it a game or you’ll encourage the wrong thing. Preschoolers (3s and 4s) may make a big deal out of sneezing or coughing because they think it’s funny or because they want you to pay attention and give them that reminder. And it IS hard for them to remember protocol before they do something, especially if they only get rebuked afterwards for forgetting but don’t get to experience what it is like to remember. So practice every now and then when you’re entering sick season. But if you catch them faking a lot and looking at you to see what you’ll do, make sure you tell them it isn’t funny to be sick, and it isn’t funny to forget to cover. The average three to three-and-a-half year old can be held accountable for this if you have worked on it. Some two or two-and-a-half year olds are ready but many are not.
For my toddlers and twos, I always settled for trying to avoid their sneezes and coughing if I could catch it. Of course you can’t always do that, and I admit scolding a couple people unthoughtfully for coughing in my face when I was buckling them in their carseat or sneezing on me when I was carrying them. But in general, being a good model yourself and moving their hands to their faces when you catch them is sufficient for that age. Or I’d use my own hand and keep sanitizer around. If you catch them remembering to cover on their own, praise them! (“Good covering!”) But then after you praise, they’ll probably fake for a bit so don’t praise that ;-) Tell them “That’s good covering but no faking” again.
Quick note: babies and children under three sometimes have a bad coughing technique and may sound like they’re faking when they’re not: the cough is a short hack, not productive, and they do it many times in a row sometimes even for several minutes. This is just because they haven’t figured out how to get the cough to reach the scratchy or congested area they need to. Don’t correct then.
Hope all this helps. Good luck this winter!