Newborn babies breathe faster than older children and adults. A newborn may breathe more slowly when they sleep, but their respiratory rate should always fall within a healthy range.

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Labored breathing, or respiratory distress, is a serious issue that affects around 7% of newborns. Some signs of respiratory distress in babies include loud breathing, nostril-flaring, sucking in the chest, and skin or nail color changes.

If a baby with labored breathing does not receive prompt treatment, there is a risk of serious complications. Very fast or slow breathing may signal an infection or another condition.

This article summarizes the healthy range of respiratory rates for newborns. It also explains how to measure a newborn’s respiratory rate and what to do when a baby breathes faster or slower than usual.

Typically, a newborn should take 40–60 breaths per minute. A single breath is one inhalation and one exhalation.

However, a 2016 study of 953 healthy, full-term newborn babies found that their respiratory rates varied significantly. The average respiratory rate 2 hours after birth was 46 breaths per minute, but around 5% of babies studied took 65 breaths per minute or more at 2 hours old. This suggests that a slightly faster breathing rate may be common and healthy in some cases.

Babies who are very upset may breathe faster while crying. Generally, their breathing will return to normal when they have calmed down.

Respiration steadily slows as a baby gets older. The typical breathing rate for a child aged between 1 and 3 years is 24–40 breaths per minute.

A fast respiratory rate, or tachypnea, tends to be more common than a slow respiratory rate in newborns. Tachypnea often means that a baby is not getting enough oxygen and is compensating by breathing more frequently.

Many issues can lead to labored breathing in newborns. Some common risk factors include:

Newborns have a higher risk of respiratory problems than older babies or children. Some other causes and contributing factors include:

Transient tachypnea of the newborn (TTN)

This is when a newborn temporarily breathes more rapidly than usual. TTN typically does not signal a serious problem and tends to resolve without treatment within 72 hours while the baby is still in the hospital. It is more common in babies born via cesarean section before labor.

Pneumonia

Infants have a higher risk of pneumonia, in part because their immune systems have yet to develop fully. Newborns with pneumonia may show no symptoms or experience vomiting, a fever, fast breathing, and a range of other issues.

Persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn (PPHN)

PPHN occurs when the baby’s circulatory system continues functioning as it did in the womb after birth and directs too much blood away from the lungs. The condition can cause fast breathing, an increased heart rate, and a blue tinge to the skin.

Congenital anomalies

Congenital anomalies are differences in the anatomy that are present at birth. Some can cause a baby to consistently breathe faster than is healthy. These include structural anomalies of the lungs, heart, nose, or respiratory passages.

A collapsed lung

When air collects between the lung and chest wall, it makes it difficult for the lung to inflate, impeding breathing. Collapsed lungs can occur in babies with lung anomalies or those who have experienced a traumatic injury, such as a fall or car accident.

The most reliable way to measure a newborn’s breathing rate is to count the number of breaths in 60 seconds.

A person can gently place a hand on the baby’s stomach or chest, counting each rise of the abdomen as a single breath. Alternatively, they can position a hand a few inches away from the baby’s nostrils and count every exhalation from the nose as a single breath.

Some newborns breathe at irregular intervals. Those in respiratory distress are more likely to breathe in an unusual pattern.

Sleeping babies may breathe more slowly, at a rate closer to 30 breaths per minute. The baby may also breathe at an irregular rate while sleeping, breathing several times quickly and then stopping for a few seconds. This pattern, referred to as periodic breathing, is normal and can also happen when a baby is awake.

If the baby shows no other signs of respiratory distress, slightly slower or irregular breathing during sleep is usually no cause for concern.

Newborns with respiratory infections or heart or lung disorders have a higher risk of breathing problems at night. Anyone with concerns about nighttime breathing in babies should consult a pediatrician, who can provide guidance.

Respiratory distress is the medical term for labored breathing. Lasting respiratory distress can be a sign of low oxygen levels in the blood. Oxygen deprivation can cause injury to the brain and other organs and can be fatal.

A baby who is breathing more or less than usual and shows signs of respiratory distress needs immediate medical attention.

Some signs of respiratory distress in newborns include:

  • Unexpected sounds during breathing: Babies struggling to breathe may grunt, wheeze, or squeak.
  • Nostril flaring: The baby may flare its nostrils to try to take in more air.
  • Retraction: This involves sucking in the chest, either between the ribs, below the breastbone, or above the collarbones. Retraction indicates that the baby is breathing harder to get more oxygen.
  • Color changes: Babies experiencing severe oxygen deprivation may change color. Their skin may be pale, and their lips, tongue, fingers, or nail beds may turn white or blue.

Closely monitor babies who are breathing very quickly or slowly. If a baby shows any signs of respiratory distress, take them to a doctor.

People should also seek medical help if a baby exhibits:

  • irregular breathing that lasts longer than a few minutes
  • unusual breathing accompanied by a fever, or any fever in a baby under 2 months
  • unusual breathing after a bath or being in water
  • unusual breathing after a choking or near-choking episode

Respiratory distress can come on suddenly in newborns and is more dangerous in babies than in older children. Caregivers should seek medical attention for a baby in respiratory distress without delay.

If a baby stops breathing or loses consciousness, contact emergency services immediately. In the United States, dial 911.

Babies breathe more quickly than adults and older children and sometimes breathe irregularly without cause for concern. A typical healthy newborn breathing rate is around 40–60 breaths per minute.

Breathing problems in newborns can be frightening for caregivers. However, the underlying causes are often treatable. Receiving prompt medical care lowers the risk of serious complications.

Contact a doctor if a baby:

  • has trouble breathing
  • breathes rapidly or very slowly
  • shows signs of respiratory distress, such as loud breathing, nostril flaring, sucking in of the chest, or changes in skin or nail color

If symptoms persist and a doctor is unavailable, take the baby to the emergency room. Contact emergency services immediately if a baby stops breathing or loses consciousness.