Normal Newborn Breathing Patterns

If you've noticed your newborn breathing a bit irregularly, you may wonder if everything is normal with your child. Newborns have distinct breathing patterns, so what may seem unusual or alarming to you could actually be perfectly normal for your newborn.

The Noisy Breathing Pattern

Mom, baby and nurse
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Don't be at all surprised if your child seems to be a noisy breather. Infants can only breathe through their noses in the first couple of months of life, which can cause them to make all sorts of sounds—from snorts and grunts to gurgles and whistles—as they inhale and exhale.

This shouldn't necessarily cause concern. However, pay attention to other signs of respiratory distress and contact a doctor immediately if your baby:

  • Turns blue all over or in areas that get a lot of blood flow (the lips, tongue, and the vagina, for example). Note: Bluing of the hands and feet can be fairly common due to an infant's immature circulatory system. This alone is not a cause for concern, so long as it is only in those areas.
  • Has a significantly increased breathing rate (more than 60 breaths per minute)
  • Struggles to breathe, which can be spotted by the nostrils persistently flaring and the chest retracting unusually
  • Is feeding poorly
  • Is lethargic

Baby Sneezes Frequently

Some parents bring their baby home, witness them sneezing frequently, and jump to the conclusion that their baby must have an allergy to the family pet. Snowball or Fido are sent packing, but then the parents find there is no change in their baby's frequent sneezes.

Breathing entirely through the nose means all air particles that enter the body land here. Because babies' nasal passages are so very tiny, they are prone to sneeze frequently to clear these substances out. This is simply a sign that the body is working as it's supposed to.

When frequent sneezes are present with other issues like vomiting, diarrhea, wheezing, and colic, it could mean that your baby is allergic to the formula you're feeding them. You should bring this up to your pediatrician, who may recommend you use a hypoallergenic formula.

Periodic Breathing

When your baby is asleep, you'll notice him go through what is known as periodic breathing. At times his breathing rate may be rapid, followed by periods of shallow breaths, and there may even be brief pauses where he doesn't seem to breathe at all for a few seconds.

This is usually perfectly normal and part of typical newborn development. Your baby should grow out of this as he ages.

If your baby shows any of the following signs, there may be something more than periodic breathing going on and you should consult your pediatrician:

  • Breathing pauses lasting longer than 10 seconds
  • Grunting while breathing
  • Persistent coughing or wheezing
  • Deeper breathing that causes the ribs to protrude

The False "First Cold" and Stuffy Noses

It really is not unusual for your baby to seemingly have her "first cold" early on. Again, this goes back to how tiny the nose is and how prone it is to get clogged with lint, fuzz, spit up, and other gunk. It probably bothers you more than it does your baby, and there may be no need to "help" her clear things out. Sometimes the best approach is to simply let it be.

However, if you strongly feel that your child needs assistance to breathe clearly, you may consider keeping the nursery free of dust and pet hair, using saline drops, and if absolutely necessary, trying a nasal aspirator. Talk to your pediatrician first.

If your baby is displaying any of these additional symptoms along with a stuffy nose, she may indeed be experiencing her first cold and should be seen by your pediatrician:

  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Decreased appetite
  • Increased irritability

Baby Hiccups

Hiccups are another common habit of newborns that can be persistent. Mom may have even experienced her baby having hiccups in the womb. Swallowing air while feeding and a sudden change in stomach temperature (such as after a cold bottle) are both common reasons for baby hiccups. They will pass in their own time.

Hiccupping could also be a sign of gastroesophageal reflux (GER), where the contents of a baby's stomach regularly come up into the esophagus. GER is especially common in premature babies and is usually outgrown as their stomachs stretch and can hold more food. That said, if your baby is showing signs of persistent GER, such as poor weight gain, extreme irritability, and consistent coughing, it's time to pay a visit to your pediatrician.

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