Causes of Breathing Problems in a Newborn

A baby who is struggling for breath shortly after birth may present with persistent blue color around the mouth and nose, flaring nostrils, grunting noises and chest retractions, clear signs of labored breathing. Rapid, shallow respirations and rattles in the lungs that can be heard with a stethoscope are also symptoms of newborn breathing difficulties, for which there are many causes. Fortunately, mechanical ventilation, oxygen and medications can bring relief. Healing takes time, but many infants treated for respiratory distress do recover completely.

Prematurity

At approximately 31 weeks gestation, a chemical called surfactant begins to be present within the fetal lungs. According to the March of Dimes, surfactant allows the oxygen-absorbing sacs in the lungs to expand and remain open when the newborn infant begins breathing on her own. Reduced surfactant is a reason babies born prematurely often need help to breathe.

Infection

Fever is a sign of infection and is accompanied by rapid breathing and heart rate in a newborn. Serious infection may be caused by a bacteria known as group B streptococcus (GBS), which normally inhabits the intestinal tract. GBS may be found in the vagina of approximately 1/3 of pregnant women, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Maternal-infant transmission may result in neonatal fever, thick mucus secretions in the baby's lungs, blood infections and meningitis. Antibiotic administration in labor is recommended by ACOG as a preventative treatment for the babies of women with positive cultures.

Sedation

Narcotics given for pain relief in labor must be carefully timed because they cross the placenta and flood the bloodstream of the unborn baby. Drugs given too close to delivery, before the mother's body has time to break down and detoxify drug metabolites, may produce respiratory depression in the newborn, according to the Mayo Clinic. These babies need help to breathe until the narcotics wear off. Medications may be given to stimulate the infant's respiratory system.

Low Blood Sugar

Infants born to diabetic mothers are at risk for hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. Irregular breathing is a symptom of hypoglycemia, according to midwife Elizabeth Davis, author of "Heart and Hands." These babies tend to be abnormally large because excess sugar in the mother's bloodstream causes the baby's body to increase insulin production and fat stores. When the umbilical cord is severed at birth, infants of diabetic mothers experience a rapid drop in blood sugar. Prompt treatment can resolve tremors and respiratory distress and prevent brain damage.

Meconium Aspiration

In the womb, the infant is dependent upon oxygenated blood flow from the placenta through the umbilical cord. Smoking, drug use, poor nutrition, cord compression or abnormally strong contractions may cause the fetus to be deprived of oxygen. The baby's bowels may reflexively release meconium stools into the amniotic fluid. Meconium aspiration occurs when the newborn inhales this substance during birth. A newborn who is unable to clear her lungs may develop chemical pneumonia, according to Davis.

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