Infant Breathing Difficulty: What the Problem Might Be
All the childcare manuals and classes in the world won’t prepare you for the joy and worry of the first night home with a new baby. You realize then that you’re on your own, and that can be an overwhelming feeling, particularly when it comes to worrying about your infant’s breathing.
All babies make odd noises while breathing—snuffles and whistles and what sounds like irregular intake of breath—but usually these noises don't indicate anything abnormal. There are some signs to watch and listen for, though, that may indicate breathing problems in infants.
Signs of Breathing Problems
- Fast and labored breathing may be caused by pneumonia: that is, by fluid buildup in the very smallest airways due to infection. This is a very serious condition. Rapid breathing (over 60 breaths per minute for more than a minute or two) requires medical attention. Note that it's normal for babies to have "period breathing": periods of rapid breathing, with pauses of up to 10 seconds, and slow breathing (20 to 40 times per minute) when sleeping. Overheated or agitated babies may breathe quite rapidly for a minute or two, then slow down when they are cooler and calmer.
- Babies who cannot get enough air may flare their nostrils at each breath, or show signs of "retracting"—pulling in their chests with each breath, or pulling in the skin around the breastbone or collarbone, while pushing out their bellies. These behaviors require medical attention.
- While it's not unusual for a baby's thin skin to look bluish around the hands and feet, a baby with bluish skin around the mouth, nose, or trunk may not be getting enough oxygen. This condition requires medical attention.
- A grunt with each exhaled breath may indicate difficulty breathing.
- Crackling sounds in the lungs, heard through a stethoscope, are a sign of pneumonia.
- Fever, listlessness, or lethargy combined with the above are reasons for greater concern.
Sounds That May Or May Not Indicate a Problem
- Babies often choke or cough while feeding, when they take in too much milk at one time, and this is not a problem. But if your baby coughs or chokes persistently, he may have a breathing problem unrelated to feeding.
- A whistling noise most likely means the nostrils are clogged with mucus or dried milk. Since babies don't know how to blow their noses, they often struggle with stopped-up noses. The blockage can be suctioned out with a bulb syringe if you like.
- Infants’ trachea tissues are soft and pliable and can make a raspy sound when air moves through them. This sound is rarely due to a blockage and doesn’t indicate significant breathing trouble.
- A deep cough, however, may be caused by a blockage in the large bronchi which lead to the lungs.
- Wheezing on inhaling and exhaling may indicate a blockage in the small airways of the lungs. Asthma is a possibility.
- A cough that sounds like a bark, due to mucus in the windpipe, is a sign of croup, a common but potentially worrisome upper respiratory virus of small children. You should ask your pediatrician for advice.
Play It Safe
Of course, any time you start focusing on your infant's breathing, you are likely to wonder if you should worry. Babies breathe differently than adults do, and the sounds they make and pauses they take while breathing can be alarming. Watch your baby and trust your instincts. If you have concerns that your infant is having trouble breathing, consult your pediatrician right away. If you aren't satisfied with his or her explanation, keep asking.
Signs of Breathing Difficulty in Babies
AskDrSears. "Breathing Difficulty in Children." http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/health-concerns/childhood-illnesses/breathing-difficulty
WebMD. "Your Newborn Baby's Breathing Noises" http://www.webmd.com/parenting/baby/your-newborn-babys-breathing-noises
The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "What Might Breathing Problems Indicate in a Newborn?" http://www.chop.edu/conditions-diseases/breathing-problems#.VQh7zGayXC8
What to Expect.com. "Noisy Baby Breathing." http://www.whattoexpect.com/first-year/ask-heidi/noisy-baby-breathing.aspx
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.