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Infant Breathing

Updated on February 8, 2012
Sleeping Baby
Sleeping Baby

What’s Normal and What’s Not

When you bring your infant home from the hospital, you suddenly realize you’re on your own. Where are those wonderful maternal-infant nurses? Who do you ask for advice when you have questions about what is normal infant behavior and what warrants a call to the doctor? Among your many questions, no doubt you will have concerns about your baby’s breathing. It goes without saying that you should call your pediatrician immediately if you suspect your infant is having serious trouble breathing. However, there are some normal breathing irregularities that may cause you concern, but should not cause you to panic.

What’s Normal?

By the time your baby is born, he’s been essentially underwater for months. It takes time for his nasal passages to clear. According to pediatrician Robert Sears, “many newborns will have a stuffy nose for several weeks.” This harmless stuffiness can interfere with feeding and breathing, but is “virtually never a reason to page your doctor after hours.” Dr. Sears recommends a squirt of nasal saline into the nose and suction with a bulb syringe. (You probably left the hospital with the one used on your newborn).

Another mild breathing problem is chest congestion caused by saliva or regurgitated milk. Again, Dr. Sears states that this is not a reason to phone your doctor after hours. Try holding your baby upright and letting him sleep upright in your arms or a carseat, and telephone your doctor during business hours to be sure your baby’s symptoms are normal.

Newborns may also exhibit rapid breathing or panting. According to the Children’s Hospital of Philadephia, “rapid breathing is more than 60 breaths each minute.” An overheated baby or one who is upset and crying may breathe more rapidly, but once the baby stops crying or is no longer too hot, the rate should slow. If rapid breathing or panting comes and goes, and your baby has no other sign of illness, you probably have no reason to worry.

Babies occasionally will take in too much milk and get choked on it. This, too, is probably harmless. However, persistent coughing or choking warrants an exam by your pediatrician.

What’s Serious?

Any sign of your baby’s breathing irregularity is, of course, going to elicit your concern, but it is important to note when “normal” becomes “abnormal.”

Croup, with its seal-like, barking cough, sounds terrible, but pediatricians say that, unless a child is having trouble breathing, immediate treatment is not necessary. A parent listening to a croupy child, though, may have trouble distinguishing what is a normal symptom and what means respiratory distress.

Signs of respiratory distress in infants are similar to those in adults. Flaring nostrils, for instance, indicate the baby is struggling to take in oxygen. A blue color similarly indicates a lack of oxygen. If baby’s chest is caved in, or he is grunting, he may have a serious respiratory problem. If you see any of these symptoms, get immediate medical attention.

Play it Safe

When it comes to your baby, you will consider any sort of breathing irregularity to be “abnormal,” so you should always trust your instincts and telephone your doctor if you have concerns for your baby’s safety. Keep in mind, though, that baby’s breathing is different from that of an adult, so your concern does not have to turn into panic.

Check out the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s site for further information:

and keep your pediatrician’s office number handy.


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