Babies do a lot of things that surprise new parents. Sometimes you pause and laugh at their behavior, and sometimes you might become genuinely concerned.

The way newborns breathe, sleep, and eat can be new and alarming for parents. Usually, there’s no cause for concern. It’s helpful to learn about newborn breathing to keep you informed and take the best care of your little one.

You might notice your newborn breathing fast, even while sleeping. Babies can also take long pauses between each breath or make noises while breathing.

Most of these come down to a baby’s physiology. Babies have smaller lungs, weaker muscles, and breathe mostly through their nose. They’re actually just learning to breathe, since the umbilical cord delivered all of their oxygen straight to their body by way of their blood while in the womb. A child’s lungs are not fully developed until ages 2 to 5.

Newborns breath a lot faster than older babies, kids, and adults.

On average, newborns younger than 6 months take about 40 breaths per minute. That looks pretty fast if you’re watching them.

Breathing may slow down to 20 breaths per minute while newborns sleep. In periodic breathing, a newborn’s breathing may stop for 5 to 10 seconds and then begin again more rapidly — around 50 to 60 breaths per minute — for 10 to 15 seconds. They shouldn’t pause more than 10 seconds between breaths, even when resting.

Familiarize yourself with your newborn’s normal breathing pattern while they’re healthy and relaxed. This will help you notice if things ever change.

Fast breathing by itself isn’t a cause for concern, but there are a few things to pay attention to. Once you have a sense of your newborn’s normal breathing pattern, watch closely for signs of change.

Premature newborns may have underdeveloped lungs and have some problems breathing. Full-term babies delivered by cesarean are at increased risk for other breathing issues right after birth. Work closely with your child’s pediatrician to learn what signs you need to monitor.

Newborn breathing problems include:

  • deep cough, which may be a sign of mucus or infection in the lungs
  • whistling noise or snoring, which may require suctioning mucus from the nose
  • barking and hoarse cry that could indicate croup
  • fast, heavy breathing which could potentially be fluid in the airways from pneumonia or transient tachypnea
  • wheezing which could stem from asthma or bronchiolitis
  • persistent dry cough, which may signal an allergy

Remember that coughing is a good natural reflex that protects your baby’s airways and keeps germs out. If you’re concerned about your newborn’s breathing, monitor them over a few hours. You’ll soon be able to tell if it’s a mild cold or something more serious.

Take a video of any worrisome behavior to either bring or email to your doctor. Find out if your child’s practitioner has an app or online interface for fast communication. This will help you let them know your child is mildly sick. In a medical emergency, you should call 911 or visit an emergency room.

Tips for taking care of a sick baby:

  • keep them hydrated
  • use saline drops to help clear mucus
  • prepare a warm bath or run a hot shower and sit in the steamy bathroom
  • play calming music
  • rock the baby in their favorite position
  • ensure the baby gets enough sleep

You shouldn’t use vapor rub as a treatment for children younger than age 2.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends always putting babies to sleep on their back for the best breathing support. It might be difficult to settle your baby down on their back when they’re sick, but it remains the safest sleeping position.

A very sick baby will look and act very different than normal. But it can be difficult to know what’s normal when you’ve only known your baby for a few weeks. Over time, you’ll get to know your baby better and your confidence will grow.

You can call your child’s doctor whenever you have questions or concerns. Most offices have an on-call nurse who can offer tips and guidance.

Call your child’s doctor or go for a walk-in appointment for any of the following:

  • trouble sleeping or eating
  • extreme fussiness
  • deep cough
  • barking cough
  • fever above 100.4°F or 38°C (seek immediate care if your baby is under 3 months)

If your baby has any of these major signs, call 911 or go to an emergency room right away:

  • a distressed look
  • trouble crying
  • dehydration from lack of eating
  • trouble catching their breath
  • breathing faster than 60 times per minute
  • grunting at the end of each breath
  • nostrils flaring
  • muscles pulling in under the ribs or around the neck
  • blue tinge to the skin, especially around lips and fingernails

Any irregular breathing in your child can be very alarming. Watch your baby and learn about their normal behavior so that you can act quickly if you notice that they’re having trouble breathing.