Amniotic fluid, contained within the amniotic sac, is very important to a developing baby. This fluid, which surrounds the unborn baby in the womb, acts as a cushion, protecting the baby from injury. It also keeps his or her temperature stable, and is needed to develop healthy bones and lungs. In the womb, the baby is constantly inhaling and exhaling the fluid—this is normal and healthy.
During labor, the baby’s body releases chemicals to help the lungs push out the fluid. The pressure of the birth canal on a baby’s chest also releases fluid. After birth, the baby’s cough, as well as air filling his or her lungs, should expel the remaining amniotic fluid.
However, sometimes the fluid does not leave the lungs as quickly and completely as it should. This excess fluid in the lungs can make it difficult for the baby’s lungs to function properly. This condition is known as transitory tachypnea of the newborn.
This condition typically causes a fast breathing rate (tachypnea) for the infant. While the symptoms may be distressing, they are typically not life-threatening. In fact, symptoms are transitory (short-lived), usually disappearing within one to three days after birth.
Other names for transitory tachypnea include:
- wet lungs-newborns
- retained fetal lung fluid
- transient RDS
- prolonged transition
The exact cause of transitory tachypnea in newborns is not always known. The condition may be caused by the inability of the newborn’s lungs to expel or to absorb amniotic fluid during and following delivery.
Babies born by cesarean section (C-section) are more likely to develop this condition. A C-section does not allow the fluid to be squeezed out of the baby’s lungs, which commonly occurs in the birth canal during vaginal delivery.
Other factors that may contribute to the development of transitory tachypnea include:
- being born before 38-weeks gestation
- being born to a mother who has diabetes
- rapid vaginal delivery
- delayed cord clamping
Male babies and those born of a larger birth weight are also more likely to develop this condition.
The symptoms of transitory tachypnea will be different for each newborn. Common symptoms of this condition include:
- rapid breathing (over 60 breaths per minute)
- labored breathing, including grunting and moaning
- nostril flaring
- bluish skin (cyanosis)
- appearance of the chest sinking under the ribcage with each breath (retractions)
The symptoms of transitory tachypnea can be associated with other medical conditions for the newborn. This may make it difficult for your doctor to diagnose this condition. In order to diagnose transitory tachypnea, your doctor will review your pregnancy, labor, and complications. Your doctor will also examine your baby. Tests may also be needed to confirm diagnosis. These tests include:
- complete blood count (CBC) and blood culture—to see if your baby has an infection, such as pneumonia
- blood gas determination—to check your baby’s blood oxygen levels
- chest X-rays—to study the lungs for causes of respiratory distress
- pulse-oximetry monitoring—an oxygen sensor is attached to your baby’s foot, allowing the doctor to monitor lung function
If there are no other causes for your baby’s symptoms, your doctor may make a diagnosis of transitory tachypnea of the newborn.
There will be some cases where symptoms that look like this disease resolve in a day or two. For this reason, your doctor may want to wait one or two days after birth to make a firm diagnosis.
If your baby has symptoms of transitory tachypnea, he or she will be given supplemental oxygen to keep blood oxygen levels stable. This oxygen will typically be delivered through a tube that is placed around your baby’s head and in his or her nose (nasal cannula). Most babies will respond to treatment within 12 to 24 hours. During this time period, the amount of supplemental oxygen needed by your baby should decrease.
Newborns with breathing difficulties may not feed properly. If this occurs, your doctor will also provide fluids and nutrients to your baby intravenously (through his or her vein). Because transitory tachypnea can be difficult to distinguish from an infection, your doctor may also prescribe antibiotics. If test results show there is no infection, these antibiotics will be stopped.
In rare cases, breathing difficulties may make it necessary to use a ventilator. A ventilator is a machine that can help the baby breathe until he or she is able to breathe independently.
The symptoms of transitory tachypnea typically resolve within one to three days following birth. In some cases, symptoms may last up to a week. Once the symptoms resolve, newborns do not usually have any additional health problems or need special follow-up care.
There is no way to definitively prevent transitory tachypnea. However, you can increase your chances of giving birth to a healthy baby by:
- eating a healthy diet during pregnancy, which includes lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- seeing your doctor regularly for prenatal checkups
- quitting smoking
- not consuming alcohol or drugs that are not prescribed by your doctor