As a parent, have you ever watched over your peacefully sleeping baby only to notice their chest moving up and down rather quickly? You lean in closer, your own breath held tight, as you count their rapid inhales and exhales. That rising panic starts to set in as you debate whether to let them be or rush them to the doctor.
I've been there too. My heart has definitely skipped a beat when I've gone to check on my sleeping little one and found their breathing became faster and shallower. That's our natural reaction as caregivers. We want to protect them and make sure everything is okay. But is there cause for concern or is a higher breathing rate normal for infants?
Together, we'll walk through the common causes of faster breathing in slumbering babies, signs that may warrant a medical evaluation, and when it makes sense to call the doctor. While it can be alarming the first time you witness it, rest assured that fast breathing during sleep is typical for many healthy babies. Arm yourself with knowledge so you can tell normal from troublesome and help baby snooze easy.
Is fast breathing normal in newborn?
Fast breathing can be normal in newborns, but it's essential to distinguish between what is considered normal and what might be a cause for concern. Here's some information about newborn breathing rates.
Normal newborn breathing: Newborns typically have irregular breathing patterns that can include periods of fast breathing, shallow breathing, and brief pauses in breathing. The average respiratory rate for a healthy newborn is around 40 to 60 breaths per minute. However, it's not uncommon for newborns to have episodes of rapid breathing, sometimes exceeding this range, especially during sleep or when they're active.
Causes of fast breathing: Several factors can contribute to periods of fast breathing in newborns, including temperature changes, crying, feeding, or simply the way they regulate their breathing. Additionally, some newborns may have a faster baseline respiratory rate compared to others.
While fast breathing can be normal, it's crucial to monitor your newborn's breathing patterns. If fast breathing is accompanied by other concerning symptoms, such as bluish discoloration of the lips or face, persistent grunting, flaring nostrils, or signs of respiratory distress, it's important to seek immediate medical attention.
If you're ever unsure or concerned about your newborn's breathing, it's a good idea to consult with a pediatrician or healthcare provider to ensure your baby's well-being. They can provide guidance and reassurance based on your baby's specific circumstances.
Why do babies breathe rapidly during sleep?
There are a few common reasons why babies tend to breathe rapidly during sleep.
Immature respiratory system - Babies' lungs and respiratory pathways are still developing, so their breathing is naturally faster and less rhythmic compared to older children and adults. Their airways are smaller and they take shorter, shallower breaths.
More time in REM sleep - Babies spend about 50% of their sleep time in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is an active sleep stage. During REM, breathing can become faster and more irregular due to changes in breathing patterns.
Developing nervous system - A baby's brainstem, which controls automatic functions like breathing, is still maturing. This can lead to occasional lapses in respiratory control during sleep.
Sleep position - Research shows babies breathe faster when sleeping on their stomachs compared to their backs. This may be due to increased work of breathing.
Congestion - Stuffy noses from colds or allergies can obstruct airways and cause babies to breathe more rapidly to compensate.
Overheating - Excessive warmth during sleep raises babies' metabolic rate and oxygen demand, which increases breathing rate.
Dreaming - Babies experience dreaming during REM cycles, which may quicken breathing. Crying or moving in sleep also elevates breathing rate.
While alarming at first to parents, periodic faster breathing during sleep is normal for healthy babies. However, sustained rapid breathing or other symptoms warrant a doctor's exam.
How often should I check my baby’s breathing?
Here are some general guidelines for checking a baby's breathing.
In the first few months, check on your baby a few times during the night while they are sleeping. You don't need to wake them, just check that their chest is rising and falling regularly.
Once past the first few months, you can transition to checking on your baby once during the night instead of multiple times.
During naps, check on your baby within 20 minutes after they fall asleep and then again if they sleep longer than usual. This helps ensure their breathing is still regular.
If you are ever concerned or worried about your baby's breathing for any reason, check on them more frequently until you are reassured. Listen for sounds of breathing and watch for chest movements.
It's always a good idea to use a firm, flat sleep surface like a crib or bassinet and follow safe sleep guidelines to help prevent any breathing issues. Don't overbundle your baby either.
Consult your pediatrician if you have any ongoing concerns about how your baby is breathing, especially if accompanied by other symptoms. Trust your parental instincts.
The frequency of checks will decrease as your baby grows older and their breathing becomes more robust and regulated. Talk to your pediatrician if you have additional questions specific to your baby.
Signs of Problems Requiring Medical Attention
Breathing Very Fast for a Prolonged Time
While periodic short episodes of faster breathing during sleep are normal for infants, breathing that is consistently rapid for a prolonged period can signify an underlying problem. If your baby's breathing remains faster than 60 breaths per minute for a continuous stretch rather than occasionally, it warrants medical evaluation. Sustained rapid breathing that persists both while asleep and awake indicates a potentially serious respiratory issue.
Over 60 Breaths/Minute
A respiratory rate higher than 60 breaths per minute is considered abnormal in infants. While newborns tend to breathe faster than older babies, consistent breathing exceeding 60 breaths per minute is a red flag. This cutoff holds true both for sleep and during wakeful calmness. Tachypnea, the medical term for fast breathing, becomes a concern when respiratory rate remains elevated over the 60 breaths per minute threshold.
Chest Sucking In While Breathing
Retractions, or sucking in of the chest cavity while breathing, occur when babies have to work harder to breathe. As the chest wall sucks inward, the skin between the ribs or at the collarbone may visibly retract. This sign of labored breathing can indicate respiratory distress or obstruction. Medical evaluation is recommended if retractions are present, especially around the lower chest and rib area.
Irregular Breathing Patterns
Periodic irregularity in breathing rate is expected in infants, but consistently irregular rhythms can potentially reflect an underlying problem. Patterns like clusters of rapid breathing followed by slowed breathing, or long pauses between breaths, may signify respiratory control issues. Irregular breathing warrants medical assessment for things like respiratory infections, airway abnormalities, or problems with the brain's breathing regulation center.
Bluish Skin, Lips or Nails
A bluish discoloration of the skin, lips or fingernails can signal oxygen deprivation. When babies are not getting enough oxygenated blood, cyanosis can set in causing a blue tint. Cyanosis is a warning sign mandating immediate emergency care, as it reflects serious respiratory distress or a cardiac issue.
Occurs While Awake and Asleep
When rapid breathing persists during both sleep and waking hours, it raises the level of concern compared to sleep-only breathing changes. Underlying causes like respiratory infections, chronic lung disease, and problems with breathing control pathways should be evaluated. Sustained changes in breathing function significant enough to alter wakeful patterns likely indicate a structural or regulatory issue needing medical help.