Rapid Breathing in Newborns

To the parents of newborns, any changes in a baby's respiratory pattern may seem alarming. Although many babies experience brief episodes of rapid breathing, a condition clinically known as tachypnea, this symptom is only rarely a sign of a medical problem. If you have any concerns regarding your baby's respiratory health, consult his pediatrician. A medical evaluation can rule out the possibility of an underlying illness.

A mother with her newborn baby. Credit: Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images

Definition

Babies naturally breathe faster than toddlers, children and adults. According to the National Institutes of Health, a newborn typically takes 40 to 60 breaths per minute. If your baby persistently breathes more than 60 times per minute, his pediatrician may diagnose him with tachypnea. Brief episodes of tachypnea are normal and ultimately harmless for most newborns.

Causes

According to renowned pediatrician Dr. William Sears, rapid breathing and panting are extremely common in newborns. As a baby adjusts to life outside the womb, his body gradually acclimates to a comfortable breathing pattern. Sears states that, as long as the baby is comfortable most of the time and shows no other worrisome symptoms, rapid breathing is not a cause for concern. Some medical problems may also cause a baby to breathe rapidly, including respiratory infections and complications from childbirth.

Transient Tachypnea

Within the first two days of life, some babies display symptoms of a medical condition known as transient tachypnea. This complication from childbirth occurs when a baby does not expel all the fluid from his lungs after birth. According to the National Institutes of Health, rapid breathing is the primary symptom associated with transient tachypnea, although babies with this condition also display other symptoms including bluish skin discoloration. This condition is usually diagnosed shortly after birth and generally self-resolves within 24 hours.

Red Flag Symptoms

Although rapid breathing itself is rarely a sign of a problem, Dr. Sears recommends that parents seek prompt medical care whenever the baby displays related "red-flag" symptoms. According to Sears, a baby may have pneumonia if he displays rapid, severely labored breathing without coughing or wheezing. This pneumonia symptom persists for several hours and warrants an immediate medical evaluation. Your baby may also need a medical evaluation if he is wheezing, becoming pale or has a caved-in chest.

Special Needs

If your baby has special needs, her pediatrician may recommend that you seek a medical evalutation during episodes of rapid breathing, particularly if you notice other worrisome symptoms. For example, babies with lung disease, asthma, cystic fibrosis or chromosomal abnormalities may display rapid breathing before experiencing a more significant health problem. Your pediatrician can provide insight into caring for your special-needs child.

Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.
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