I remember being a first-time parent. I was continually calling our family pediatrician convinced that our little Monkey was probably on the brink of death. Unless you have done your research, normal newborn breathing is one of the things that will likely alarm you as a new parent.
I am certainly not a hypochondriac, but I do wish that someone had better explained what normal newborn breathing looked like (or maybe they did and I didn’t listen, anywho).
Google can be a dangerous thing, especially for a panicked and half-asleep new mother. After multiple phone calls and doctor visits, I became more of a pro when it comes to what’s normal in regards to your newborn’s breathing patterns.
I wanted to share the information I learned with other new parents. I tried to include as much research-based information as possible because it’s critical to make sure the info you are reading comes from a reputable source.
Normal Newborn Breathing Patterns
Table of Contents
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What is a normal baby breathing rate?
According to Stanford Children’s Health, a newborn’s standard breathing rate is around 30-60 breaths per minute (although they usually slow down to approximately 20 breaths per minute when sleeping). [source] To give you an idea, adults breathe at an average of 12-20 breaths per minute–so that’s a pretty BIG difference!
Related: Newborn Safe Sleep Guidelines
Your baby’s organs aren’t fully developed when they are born, which is why we see the increased respiratory rate. Their lungs fill up their entire chest cavity, which means they don’t have enough room for reserve air.
What is a normal baby breathing pattern?
Babies and adults differ a lot in their breathing patterns. This world is a new experience for your newborn, and they are just learning to breathe (along with the other 1,000 things your baby has to adjust to). The pattern of breathing in your baby can be pretty irregular, but that’s usually okay.
A typical newborn can breathe fast several times and then stop breathing (for less than 10 seconds) before taking a breathe again. This is called periodic breathing, and it’s pretty standard in healthy babies. Don’t worry; your baby WILL grow out of it.
What are normal breathing noises for my baby?
Babies can make a lot of odd noises when they breathe–and many of them are considered normal.
I remember being in the hospital the day after my first daughter was born and being quite alarmed at the whistles and grunts coming out of her.
I mean, I KNEW that babies make strange noises sometimes, but it just seemed like she was getting tired from all of the sounds coming out of her. What if she just stopped breathing? What if she had something stuck in her throat?
Of course, she was just fine and it was completely normal.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t worry about these things as new parents. To a point, we should. We are officially in charge of our own little human, and their health and well being is our responsibility.
Keep in mind, what’s considered normal newborn breathing can differ a little when they are sleeping. When we as adults sleep, we often grunt and snore, and your little love is no different. You may hear more noises than usual out of them, and this is usually not a cause for concern.
- Snorting/Grunting-This happens because your baby is breathing through their nose. Babies typically do this naturally as it allows them to eat and breathe at the same time. If your baby seems like they are snorting or grunting in EXCESS, you may have a reason to worry. I know it can be hard to differentiate the norm from the not, but in general, as long as your little one is not persistently grunting after each breath, it’s usually entirely normal. [source]
- Whistling Noise-Your baby does most of their breathing out of their nose, but they aren’t even close to mastering blowing their nose. This means your likely to hear some whistles if your baby has a blockage in their nostril.
- Gurgles-Gurgling can happen when your baby has mucous that travels to the back of your baby’s throat.
- Sneezing-This happens when your baby is breathing from their nose which can be irritating.
When should I worry about my baby’s breathing?
There are indeed some telltale signs accompanying a breathing emergency in your baby. I will list some of the more common and obvious things you will see, although if you are genuinely concerned that your little one is having a breathing issue–don’t wait and call your doctor or 911. Don’t worry mom, your common sense paired with your instincts will rarely lead you down the wrong path.
Rapid Breathing-I know I said your baby will breathe rapidly, but if you see anything over 60 breaths a minute that definitely needs a call to a medical professional.
Flared Nostrils-Babies breathe through their noses naturally. If your baby is struggling to get enough oxygen, they will often try to breathe harder, which in turn widens their nostrils with every breath.
-Working harder to breathe. If it seems like your little one is working harder to breathe than usual, they probably are working harder! According to my sister-in-law (who is an RN), babies will sometimes stop breathing if they have to work too hard for too long. This is definitely an emergency, and it’s NOT worth waiting around.
Grunting after every breath. Although some grunting is normal for your baby, it should not be happening after every breath. Also, grunting that occurs with rapid, shallow breathing could mean a lower respiratory system infection so it’s a good idea to take them in. https://www.peacehealth.org/medical-topics/id/rsp10
Blue color (cyanosis)-This is probably one of the most severe telltale signs that your baby is experiencing breathing difficulty. The blue color is caused by cyanosis, which is a lack of oxygen to the area turning blue. Your baby needs medical attention right away. [source] According to Jill Irvin RN, you may specifically see a blue-colored triangular shape on and around your baby’s forehead, nose, and lip when they are experiencing cyanosis. [source]
Chest retractions. The chest appears to sink in just below the neck and/or under the breastbone with every breath–this is just one more way of trying to bring more air into the lungs. https://www.chop.edu/conditions-diseases/signs-respiratory-distress-children
-Fever/Inappetance/Lethargy. Often these signs can accompany a breathing issue your baby is having. Breathing noises on their own may not constitute a doctor visit, but if you see a combination of symptoms, it’s worth getting your little one seen.
-Baby is wheezing (this CAN be a sign of bronchitis or asthma).
Continuous coughing fits-My little one gave a few coughs here and there, but if it is more than a short bout, it’s time to call the doctor. You will find that most coughs can be placed in one of two categories–a dry cough (no mucus) or a wet cough (yellow, clear, or green mucus).
Newborn & Baby Coughing
A dry cough usually indicates irritation or inflammation. [source] Dry coughs are typically seen with a cold or allergies. It can also happen as a result of environmental irritants, whooping cough, or influenza.
A wet cough is often caused by respiratory illness (such as pneumonia) that accompanies a bacterial infection. [source] According to Catherine Dundon M.D., “Children younger than four months don’t cough much, so if they do, it’s serious.”
Remember, if your baby is experiencing a lot of coughing during winter, RSV is a particular worry.
We never experienced this with either of our children (luckily,) but when my second daughter was born, the pediatrician made a point to talk to us multiple times about the dangers associated with it. The pediatrician had a friend with a six week old baby who died from RSV–so it’s NOT something to take lightly.
A cough can be persistent and painful for your baby. Watching your baby have a coughing fit is SUPER hard. I think it’s almost as hard on us as parents as it is on them. A cough may interfere with your baby’s normal schedule, and they may struggle with eating and sleeping.
Unfortunately, this means a sleepless cranky baby, which translates to exhausted (and maybe a little cranky too) parents. Keep your head up and remember this too shall pass.
As long as your baby is not experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s usually safe to try and manage a cough at home.
One of the BEST things you can do at home for a cough is breastfeeding. A study done with over 1,000 infants concluded that not only does the duration of respiratory illness lessen with breastfeeding, but there is also a reduction in lower respiratory disease in exclusively breastfed babies. [source]
There are other at home treatments you can do to help your baby move past their awful cough. The recommendation differs depending on the cause and type of cough your baby has. You can read more about different cough home remedies from the American Academy of Pediatricians here.
You can read more about when to take your little one to the doctor here, although if your baby is coughing, the safest option is ALWAYS going to be checking with your pediatrician.
Tip–If you decide to go into your pediatrician, take a video of your baby when they start breathing abnormally. Trying to recreate the noise of your baby’s squeaks in the middle of the doctor’s office are about as useful as a person trying to imitate the noise that their broken down car was making. It’s just not.
A Note On The Owlet
There is definitely some controversy surrounding the Owlet, which tests your baby’s oxygenation levels. The AAP recommends against using one of these devices, as it can cause unnecessary worry in parents and may cause unnecessary hospital visits and treatments.
In The Journal of the American Medical Association, it was stated that there is no “available evidence supporting the safety, accuracy, effectiveness or role of these monitors.”
Look, this makes sense. If you DON’T have a medical background, I can see how this could be problematic. If you don’t have a solid understanding of how these tools work, you could easily fall prey to user error.
These products are still relatively new, so of course, there is not available evidence supporting them yet.
There have been reports of parents that have taken their newborn into the hospital unnecessarily because of a false low reading. I think the critical thing to remember is to use your common sense when it comes to using this product.
If you are getting a reading that your baby’s oxygen level is very low, yet they are kicking and cooing–you have to consider that you may be getting an inaccurate reading.
I worked as an animal nurse at an emergency center, and we would get false low readings often due to the patient moving around. If your baby is squirming around a lot, or the product slips–, it won’t get an accurate reading.
I feel like that information is important to know before you decide whether or not you want to buy it. The controversy is understandable, but it doesn’t seem that the product is not recommended because it’s unsafe–we just don’t know that it works.
With that, I STILL recommend this product for an extra layer of peace of mind. If used correctly, it’s not going to HURT your baby (not that you COULD hurt your baby with a sock-shaped piece of fabric).
The Owlet tracks and updates (in real time to your phone) your baby’s oxygen levels and heart rate. A pulse oximeter was a serious lifesaver when I worked in the ER, and it’s still used commonly in human medicine all of the time.
The Owlet was BY FAR the very best purchase we made for our second baby because I could go to sleep worrying less about whether or not my baby would suddenly stop breathing in the night. With my first, I was terrified to go to sleep at night.
I was always worried something would happen to her and I would not find out until the morning. The cost is a little hefty, but honestly, any little thing to help me sleep better at night with a newborn was WORTH IT to me.
You can get more information about the Owlet here if you are interested.
Related: Best Baby Products
What Breathing Disorders Can Newborns Get?
1 in 10 children under three will have some kind of breathing problem or illness. [source] Luckily, this IS a pretty low statistic, but it’s still definitely good to be aware and familiarize yourself with what you should be watching out for.
Although your baby can go ten seconds in between breaths, they honestly shouldn’t go much longer than that. 20 seconds is much too long and considered somewhat dangerous.
Apnea in itself is just a pause or reduction in breathing that occurs when your baby is sleeping, and it’s okay for it to happen every once in a while. If your baby continues to have prolonged periods between breathing, it can be particularly dangerous to your infant as they can end up losing consciousness or needing to be resuscitated. [source]
Some potential signs of sleep apnea in infants include
- Going twenty seconds between breaths
- Have a pattern of repeating pauses that last less than twenty seconds
- Have other problems such as a slow heart rate or oxygen level
There are a variety of causes for sleep apnea in your baby. Some of the most common reasons stated by The Sleep Education Center include
- Lung disease
- Small upper airway
Although a small percentage of babies who die from SIDS have apnea symptoms, correlation does NOT mean causation, and apnea is not established as a risk factor for SIDS. [source]
If you are concerned that your child may be suffering from sleep apnea, you should definitely consider seeing a sleep specialist.
Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS)
This is a common lung disorder that occurs in premature infants–in fact, most babies who are born before 28 weeks develop RDS.
This disorder happens because your infant is unable to make enough surfactant, which is a liquid that coats the inside of the lungs. This helps keep the lungs open so that your baby can breathe. When they don’t create enough surfactant, the lungs will collapse and your baby will have a hard time breathing.
Babies who are full term rarely suffer from this disorder, and it’s definitely something you would know before taking your baby home, as it will require medical treatment.
Sometimes complications arise from RDS or its treatments. These can include asthma, blindness, BPD (discussed below) and brain damage. Luckily, most infants with this disorder WILL survive. [source]
Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia (BPD)
This is a chronic lung disease that affects mostly premature newborns and infants. If your baby was born with breathing issues, they are usually put on oxygen therapy and/or a mechanical ventilator.
Although the oxygen therapy is lifesaving, it unfortunately can cause some inflammation and permanent scarring of your newborn’s fragile lungs. There are different levels of severity seen with BPD.
For mild cases, your baby may only have an increased breathing rate. In severe cases, the infant may require prolonged mechanical ventilation use. Severe cases are uncommon, and most babies do recover, although some will experience long-term respiratory problems such as asthma. [source]
Related: Baby Sleep Tips & Tricks
Baby Breathing Patterns
I know that the first few weeks with your baby are nerve-wracking. Remember, true breathing problems are uncommon in newborns. Most of the breathing issues that happen occur in premature babies, so if you had a full term healthy infant, chances are your baby will be okay.
The strange newborn breathing habits that you are seeing are probably normal, and unless they are obviously having some breathing difficulty, it’s worth pausing for a moment before panicking.
It’s definitely worth being concerned about, just try and make an educated decision on what you will do next.
And of course…If you EVER suspect that your baby is having breathing difficulty, don’t wait. It’s always better to be safe, and it’s better to be wrong than to risk your baby’s life.
Did you know about what normal newborn breathing looked like before having your baby? I would love to hear your thoughts, ideas, and questions in the comment section below.
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