Is your newborn breathing too fast?
Chances are, you’ve already noticed or will notice that your baby seems to breathe faster than you’d expect. It can be concerning if you don’t know what’s normal or what signs point to an irregular breathing pattern. Especially as a new parent, you might be tempted to pick up the phone and call your doctor every few seconds as you watch your newborn breathe.
Trust me. I get it. You’re both adapting to some pretty big changes and figuring out a new normal together. For you, it’s parenting and absorbing the information overload of what you need to know now. For children, it’s learning how to breathe and interact with the new world around them.
In this article, I answer some of your burning questions about what normal newborn breathing looks like, the most common problems infants face after birth, and signs to watch out for that could point to an irregular breathing pattern.
Table of contents
Average Infant Breathing Patterns
Breathing is something we usually don’t think twice about. While we’re old pros at it, our newborns are still figuring it out while adjusting to a new world. So, what does normal breathing in a newborn look like, and what are the warning signs of an irregularity?
The way a baby breathes looks a bit different than the way an adult, or even young children, do because their lungs are still rapidly developing. While 12 to 15 breaths a minute is common for adults, in newborns under 6 months of age, 40 to 60 breaths per minute is the average. So, if you think your newborn is breathing fast, you’re not going crazy, but it usually isn’t something to be concerned about.
You may even notice slight differences in how your baby breathes at different times, like a slower rate of breath while they sleep, a sharp increase after crying, or during an infection as they recover from being sick. What’s considered healthy can vary from newborn to newborn, which is why it’s important to know what standard breathing patterns look like in your child so you can spot any warning signs your baby is experiencing irregularities.
While a faster pace of breathing is to be expected in this early stage of life, there are risks and conditions to be aware of.
Common Problems Newborns Experience After Birth
Respiratory distress is common shortly after birth and is usually caused by abnormal respiratory function during the transition from fetal to neonatal life. To say there’s a lot happening during childbirth is an understatement, and it’s not just a lot for you; it’s also a lot for your baby.
During their transition from the womb to the world, they undergo a process that causes the onset of regular breathing. Up until the point of birth, babies receive their oxygen via the umbilical cord and placenta. Their lungs are filled with amniotic fluid that, leading up to and upon being born, drains just before their lungs are filled with air for the first time. Told you it was a lot! There may be more behind the crying than meets the eye, like having to DIY their breathing for the first time.
Most newborns make that transition without a problem, but in 10% of cases, breathing difficulty can occur immediately or shortly after birth. The three most common causes are transient tachypnea or TTN, respiratory distress syndrome or RDS, and persistent pulmonary hypertension or PPHN.
Signs and Symptoms of Infant Breathing Irregularities
TTN is caused by inadequate lung fluid clearance at the time of birth. The excess liquid decreases lung compliance, which is the lung’s ability to stretch and expand and can then result in increased airway resistance as your baby tries to breathe. TTN is most frequently seen in late preterm infants born at a gestational age between 34 and 37 weeks, especially when delivered by c-section. The onset of symptoms usually occurs within 24 hours of birth, with the most prominent being tachypnea, which is a respiratory rate of over 60 breaths per minute. In mild cases of TTN, infants were typically only symptomatic for 12 to 24 hours but can continue for up to 72 hours in severe cases.
RDS is caused by a deficiency of surfactant, which is a fluid secreted by the tiny air sacs in the lungs, otherwise known as alveoli. Surfactant is important because it contributes to the elastic properties of lung tissue, preventing the alveoli from collapsing. Infants with RDS are typically born preterm, with symptoms occurring at or soon after birth. The most common signs include grunting, nasal flaring, and retractions, which means the baby is pulling their chest in at their ribs, below the breastbone, or above the collarbones. In infants with uncomplicated cases of RDS, symptoms progressed for 48 to 72 hours and started to improve after surfactant levels increased naturally. And with the use of surfactant treatments, the typical clinical case of RDS was shortened and lung function was dramatically improved at a quicker rate.
PPHN is caused by a persistent elevated pulmonary vascular resistance, which is the resistance to flow. PVR makes it difficult for blood to be pushed through the lungs, resulting in a low level of oxygen in the blood. PPHN usually occurs in term infants and is considered a very rare diagnosis in low birth weight infants. Symptoms typically include tachypnea and cyanosis, which is the appearance of blue-ish skin color.
Breathing can be hard work when you’re brand new at it, especially if you’re contending with some of these more common respiratory risks. As a parent, knowing the signs of breathing problems or irregularities can keep your newborn safe, so symptoms like tachypnea, nasal flaring, grunting or moaning, retractions, and blue-ish skin coloring.
Of course, fast breathing is totally normal and will stick around for a while as your newborn’s lungs develop. And if you’re ever worried about the way your infant is breathing or spot signs of an abnormality, you should always address it with your primary care provider.