Children breathe faster than adults. Body size, weight and activity level influence normal breathing rates. But age is the factor most commonly used to determine normal values. Normal breathing rate ranges from as high as 30 to 60 breaths per minute at birth to as low as 12 to 16 breaths per minute at age 18. Breathing maintains the child's critical balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
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Breaths by Age
According to the New York State Department of Health, infants, from birth to 1 year, should have 30 to 60 breaths per minute. Toddlers, ages 1 to 3, breathe 24 to 40 times per minute. Pre-schoolers, ages 3 to 6 years, average 22 to 34 breaths per minute. Six- to 12-year-olds have 18 to 30 breaths per minute. Adolescents, ages 12 to 18, have 12 to 16 breaths per minute.
Things to Consider
Children are not all alike, and various authorities report slightly different normal breathing ranges, though most vary by only a few percent. But the trend of decreasing normal rate with increasing age remains unchanged in all cases. Normal rates vary according to weight, activity levels and growth-related developmental milestones.
Breathing for Equilibrium
Normal breathing rate is important because breathing delivers oxygen to a developing child's heart, brain, liver and all the other organ systems. A child not only needs oxygen for ongoing metabolism, like an adult, but for creation of new and growing tissues, bones and nerves. Breathing also eliminates carbon dioxide, the normal waste product of metabolism and growth. A child's biochemistry is carefully balanced between too much and too little carbon dioxide. A normal breathing rate is one of the most important regulators of that balance.
According to Dr. A. T. Rotta, in the March 2003 issue of "Respiratory Care," many of the most important childhood respiratory emergencies are related to breathing rates. Slow breathing causes oxygen starvation and damage to the most active, growing systems. A buildup of too much carbon dioxide can cause unconsciousness, seizures and coma. This can be caused by an airway obstruction, inflammation, or accidental ingestion of depressant medications like pain killers, tranquilizers and intoxicants.
Breathing too fast will cause the elimination of too much carbon dioxide. This causes irregular heart beats, changes in blood flow to vital organs and neurological changes. High fever and accidental ingestion of stimulants can cause this imbalance.
Normal breathing rate in children is easy to measure. Simply count the breathing cycles -- an inhalation and an exhalation is one breath -- in a complete minute. Do not count part of a minute and multiply. A child's breathing rate can be irregular due to pain, crying or restlessness. Also check the depth of each breath. If breathing is unusually shallow or deep, oxygen and carbon dioxide disturbances can also result. All abnormal signs and symptoms accompanying an abnormal breathing rate should receive immediate medical attention.