Newborns often have irregular breathing patterns that concern new parents. They can breathe fast, take long pauses between breaths, and make unusual noises.
Newborns’ breathing looks and sounds different from adults because:
- they breathe more through their nostrils than their mouth
- their breathing pathways are much smaller and easier to obstruct
- their chest wall is more pliable than an adult’s because it’s made of mostly cartilage
- their respiration isn’t fully developed since they still have to learn to use their lungs and the associated breathing muscles
- they may still have amniotic fluid and meconium in their airways right after birth
Usually, there’s nothing to worry about, but parents often do anyway. Parents should pay careful attention to a newborn’s typical breathing pattern. This way they can learn what’s normal to be able to tell later if something is not.
Typically, a newborn takes 30 to 60 breaths per minute. This can slow down to 20 times per minute while they sleep. At 6 months, babies breathe about 25 to 40 times per minute. An adult, meanwhile, takes about 12 to 20 breaths per minute.
Newborns can also take rapid breaths and then pause for up to 10 seconds at a time. All of this is very different from adult breathing patterns, which is why new parents might be alarmed.
Within a few months, most of the irregularities of newborn breathing resolve themselves. Some newborn breathing issues are more common in the first few days, such as transient tachypnea. But after 6 months, most breathing issues are probably due to allergies or a short-term illness like the common cold.
It’s important that you become familiar with your baby’s normal breathing sounds and patterns. If something sounds different or wrong, listen carefully so you can explain it to your pediatrician.
Respiratory distress causes
The following are common sounds and their potential causes:
This might be a blockage in the nostrils that will clear when it’s suctioned. Ask your pediatrician how to gently and effectively suction mucus.
Hoarse cry and barking cough
This noise may be from a windpipe blockage. It might be mucus or an inflammation in the voice box such as croup. Croup also tends to get worse at night.
This is likely a blockage in large bronchi but a doctor will need to listen with a stethoscope to confirm.
Wheezing can be a sign of blockage or narrowing of the lower airways. The blockage might be caused by:
This can mean there’s fluid in the airways from an infection, such as pneumonia. Fast breathing can also be caused by fever or other infections and should be evaluated right away.
A sudden, low-pitched noise on an exhale usually signals an issue with one or both lungs. It can also be a sign of severe infection. You should visit a doctor immediately if your baby is ill and is grunting while breathing.
Never hesitate to reach out to your doctor if you’re concerned about your baby’s breathing.
Irregular breathing can be very alarming and trigger parental anxiety. First, slow down and look at your baby to see whether they look like they’re in distress.
Here are some tips if you’re concerned about your baby’s breathing:
- Learn your child’s typical breathing patterns so you’re better prepared to identify what’s not typical.
- Take a video of your baby’s breathing and show it to a doctor. Many medical professionals now offer online appointments or communication by email, saving you a possibly unnecessary trip to the office.
- Always have your baby sleep on their back. This decreases your baby’s risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). If your baby has a respiratory infection and isn’t sleeping well, ask your doctor for safe ways to help clear congestion. It’s not safe to prop them up or put their crib on an incline.
- Saline drops, sold over-the-counter at drugstores, can help loosen thick mucus.
- Sometimes, babies breathe fast when they’re overheated or upset. Clothe your baby in breathable fabrics. You should only add one extra layer more than what you yourself are wearing for the weather that day. So, if you’re wearing pants and a shirt, your baby might wear pants, a shirt, and a sweater.
Catching an issue early gives your baby the best chance for recovery in the short term and decreases future problems.
A change in newborn breathing pattern may indicate a serious breathing problem. If you’re ever concerned, call your doctor right away. Memorize the doctor’s after-hours phone numbers or have them available at all times. Most offices have a nurse on call that can answer and help direct you.
Doctors may use a chest X-ray to diagnose breathing issues and make a treatment plan.
If your child has any of these symptoms, call 911 or your local emergency services:
- blue color in lips, tongue, fingernails, and toenails
- doesn’t breathe for 20 seconds or more
See your doctor immediately if your child:
- is grunting or moaning at the end of each breath
- has nostrils flaring, which means they’re working harder to get oxygen into their lungs
- has muscles pulling in on the neck, around collarbones, or ribs
- has difficulty feeding in addition to breathing issues
- is lethargic in addition to breathing issues
- has a fever as well as breathing issues
Babies tend to breathe faster than older kids and adults. Sometimes they make unusual noises. Rarely, infants have trouble breathing because of a serious health concern. It’s important that you can tell right away if your baby is having trouble breathing. Familiarize yourself with your baby’s usual breathing patterns and get help right away if something seems wrong.