breathing problems in babies

Breathing problems in babies can be scary, which is why it’s important to have the resources to detect them on time.

Of course, being aware of baby breathing problems doesn’t mean that we have to be constantly listening to their breathing: new mums and dads can worry too much sometimes, due to the lack of experience and the overwhelming sensation of being responsible from such a fragile little being.

Breathing problems in babies: Red flags

As a new parent, you may be tempted to check your baby’s breathing a lot during the night. That’s OK if it makes you feel reassured, but remember that it’s important that you sleep as well. 

What is a normal baby breathing? They don’t breathe as adults do; but in cycles, some faster and some slower. If you see that your baby’s breathing gets faster, it doesn’t mean that there is something wrong, since it’s normal for newborns to have irregular breathing patterns. Grunts and snorts from time to time are also normal.

So how do we detect breathing problems in babies? When you’re listening to your baby breath, watch out for the following possible red flags. They’re not a problem per se, but if they appear too often it could be a sign of something being wrong. If these only appear occasionally, your baby doesn’t show other symptoms and seems to be fine, chances are it’ll be nothing or just a bit of a cold. However, call your paediatrician if you’re not sure about it or if they appear too often. 

  • A whistle: If you detect a whistling noise, it may be a sign of one of the breathing problems in babies. However, it could be caused by just a small mucus blockage or a stuffy nose.

  • A high-pitched sound: This may be caused by the presence of excess tissue in his larynx, and it’s not one of the breathing problems in babies, since it’s usually harmless.

  • Coughing: If your baby coughs or ‘barks’ while sleeping, keep your eyes open for other symptoms, since this could mean that there’s some mucus in his throat but could also be croup.

  • Apnea: Apnea is the name received by the pauses in breathing, that is, a short period of time without doing it. It’s normal for babies to pause their breathing for around 5 seconds to then start breathing again and more deeply, but if it happens for 10 seconds, that would be something to worry about, as we’ll see in the following section. 


Possible breathing problems in babies

So, if ‘weird’ breathing sounds are not that unusual in babies, when do we need to worry? When the noises come with other symptoms, such as:

  • Your baby breathing too fast (more than 70 times per minute); but keep in mind that babies breathe faster than adults.
  • If he seems to have trouble to breathe: if you notice that your baby is coughing and grunting a lot, that could be a sign of the presence of one of the breathing problems in babies. Other symptoms of difficulty breathing are retraction (your baby’s chest muscles going too deeply when he’s breathing) or flared nostrils.

If your baby has a very noisy breathing, you can try to clean up his stuffy nose with some saline solution or by bringing him to the bathroom, where you will have previously opened the taps with hot water. If his breathing doesn’t improve, it’ll be a good idea to call the doctor.

  • A bluish colour: If you notice that your baby’s hands or feet are adopting a bluish colour, it means that his blood isn’t getting enough oxygen. This could be a sign of pneumonia and other diseases, such as neonatal respiratory distress syndrome (NRDS).

  • Apnea for longer than 6 seconds: monitor your baby closely and prepare to take him to the emergency room if you detect a prolonged pause in his breathing.  


So now that you know a bit more about breathing problems in babies, you may be able to reduce the anxiety that new parents sometimes feel when they’re sleeping. Keep in mind that sudden infant death syndrome or cot death, the terrible cause that keeps most parents awake at night, is very rare and affects only around 300 babies each year in the UK – so it’s not likely to happen.