During the first several months of life, many babies experience mild, transient changes in the pace and depth of breathing. According to Dr. William Sears, a renowned pediatrician, rapid breathing and panting are extremely common in newborns and only rarely a cause for concern. If your baby breathes comfortably most of the time and shows no other signs of illness, his shallow breathing is probably a normal fluctuation in his breathing pattern. Consult your baby's primary health care provider if you are concerned about your baby's respiratory health.
Newborns naturally breathe at a faster rate than adults. According to the National Institutes of Health or NIH, young infants breathe up to 44 times per minute, although adults on average only breathe 8 to 16 times per minute. For this reason, parents may erroneously assume that a baby is experiencing rapid, shallow breathing when the baby's respiratory rate is entirely normal. Your pediatrician may diagnose your baby with tachypnea, or accelerated breathing, if his rate of respiration exceeds 60 breaths per minute.
Several medical conditions can cause rapid, shallow breathing in infants. These conditions vary dramatically in their severity and treatment options. In very young babies less than two days old, shallow breathing may be the first sign of transient tachypnea, a mild condition caused by fluid in the lungs. Preterm babies may also experience shallow breathing due to apnea of prematurity. This common problem involves 5- to 10-second intervals in which the baby either stops breathing or experiences extremely shallow respiration. Other conditions that cause shallow breathing include asthma, pneumonia and bronchiolitis.
Brief episodes of shallow breathing are often harmless, particularly when they occur in very young babies. However, it is critical to contact a pediatrician if your baby demonstrates any "red-flag" symptoms of a more serious underlying problem. According to the NIH, episodes of very shallow breathing are considered to be serious if they occur after the baby's second week of life or last for more than 20 seconds. Tell your health care provider if your baby experiences rapid breathing accompanied by fever, skin discoloration, wheezing, lethargy or a barking cough. These symptoms may warrant immediate treatment.
Your pediatrician will choose a treatment option for your baby, depending on the cause and severity of her shallow breathing. If your baby has a respiratory infection, her health care provider will likely administer antiviral drugs, antibiotics or bronchiodilators. Non-infectious episodes of rapid breathing may be treated using other options. According to the NIH, physicians treat brief episodes of apnea by simply monitoring the baby and advising parents to position the baby carefully. Babies with apnea of prematurity may require oxygen, suctioning and small doses of caffeine. Rarely, a baby with severe shallow breathing may require treatment using a breathing machine or artificial respiration.
Fortunately, shallow breathing generally improves without causing any long-term problems for the baby's development. According to the NIH, babies with transient tachypnea and apnea of prematurity rarely experience any long-term problems related to these conditions. However, babies who experience shallow breathing due to a respiratory infection may suffer from long-term complications if they do not receive immediate treatment. If left untreated, severe ailments such as pneumonia may cause permanent organ damage or death.