Lung Development and Infant Breathing Disorders

Written by MaryAnn DePietro | Published on 26 November 2013
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on 26 November 2013

What Are Lung Development and Infant Breathing Disorders?

The lungs are one of the last organs of the body to develop during the prenatal stage. Some critical features of the lungs don’t develop until near the end of pregnancy. For example, surfactant, which helps reduce surface tension in the lungs, does not develop until the eighth or ninth month of pregnancy. When an infant is born prematurely, the lungs may not have time to fully develop. This can lead to a variety of immediate breathing disorders.

Types of Infant Breathing Disorders

There are many types of breathing disorders related to lung development. Most occur when a baby is born before his or her lungs have had time to develop completely. Some common conditions include:

Apnea: Apnea is the absence of breathing for 20 seconds or more. It may occur in premature babies because their neurological system, which controls breathing, is still immature.

Pneumonia: Babies with premature lungs are at risk of developing pneumonia. Pneumonia can develop due to infection or from meconium aspiration. Meconium is the earliest stool that an infant produces, sometimes in the womb. It is sometimes inhaled shortly after birth. This can cause an infection that leads to pneumonia.

Respiratory Distress Syndrome: Surfactant may not be fully developed in premature babies. Because of this, the lungs can collapse, making breathing difficult. Respiratory distress syndrome is most common in newborns, especially those born six weeks or more prematurely.

Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia: Babies born 10 weeks early are at the greatest risk for bronchopulmonary dysplasia. This occurs as a complication from therapy that a baby may receive due to premature lung development. Babies born very early often need oxygen and assistance with a mechanical ventilator. While lifesaving, this treatment can also scar the fragile lungs of a premature baby, making breathing even more difficult.

What Causes Infant Breathing Disorders?

Prematurity is the main cause of breathing disorders related to lung development. If a baby’s lungs are not fully developed, the baby may have problems breathing. Congenital defects, which affect lung or airway development, may also lead to breathing problems.

What Are the Risk Factors for Infant Breathing Disorders?

Any baby born before the lungs have time to fully mature is at risk for breathing problems. The earlier a baby is born, the greater the risk for breathing problems.

What Are the Symptoms of Infant Breathing Disorders?

Symptoms of breathing problems may occur immediately after birth. Sometimes they occur hours or days later. Symptoms of breathing problems associated with lung development include an absence of breathing or shallow breathing. Grunting, nasal flaring, and retractions are also signs that a baby is struggling to get air into the lungs.

How Are Infant Breathing Disorders Diagnosed?

A physician may base a diagnosis on observable symptoms. Several diagnostic tests can also help determine what type of breathing disorder an infant has.

An X-ray of the lungs can help doctors diagnose a condition. A pulse oximetry check can measure the oxygen levels in the infant’s blood. Similarly, an arterial blood gas (ABG) test can measure levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood, as well as the blood’s acidity.

How Are Infant Breathing Disorders Treated?

Treatments for breathing disorders related to lung development vary depending on the condition and the severity of symptoms. Treatment may include:

Medications: Respiratory medications, such as bronchodilators, may help open up the airways. This makes breathing easier. Surfactant may also be administered to prevent lungs from collapsing.

Oxygen: Breathing problems may prevent a baby from getting enough oxygen into the lungs. Administering oxygen may be needed.

Mechanical Ventilation: Babies who cannot breathe on their own due to lung problems may require a machine, known as a ventilator, to assist with breathing.

In instances of congenital defects, surgery may help correct the problem. Home care may involve continued oxygen administration and respiratory therapy.

What Is the Outlook for Infant Breathing Disorders?

The prognosis for infants with breathing problems depends on several factors, such as gestational age, type of breathing disorder, and symptom severity.

How Are Infant Breathing Disorders Prevented?

Prevention of breathing disorders is not always possible. Preventing premature delivery will decrease the risk of breathing problems. Women who are pregnant can reduce their risk of delivering early by getting good prenatal care, eating a healthy diet, and by not smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol.

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