There's probably not a parent alive who hasn't watched his or her baby sleeping and wondered if the baby was really breathing. But what is normal when it comes to breathing and babies? Is there really cause for concern? Here's what every parent needs to know.
It's normal for newborns to have "periodic breathing." This is when an infant breathes slowly for a time, then breathes more quickly, then slows down, and so on. Periodic breathing may also include short spells of breathing so shallow you may not be able to detect breathing at all. And sometimes your baby may, indeed, stop breathing for a few seconds.
Newborns with periodic breathing should have no other symptoms of a breathing problem, like blueness around the mouth, gray skin, or wheezing.
Apnea of Prematurity
Aside from normal periodic breathing, the most common cause of irregular breathing in babies is apnea of prematurity. Widely affecting premature infants (babies born before 37 weeks gestation), apnea of prematurity is found in 85 percent of babies born weighing around two pounds, 50 percent of babies born weighing around three pounds, and about 25 percent of infants born at about 5 ½ pounds.
Apnea of prematurity results in periods of no breathing (for at least 20 seconds) and is caused by the infant's immature brain, which isn't fully ready to control breathing. Babies suffering from this type of apnea may have blue lips or gray-tinged skin.
Treatment for Apnea of Prematurity
Treatment varies according to severity, but the more premature an infant is, the more likely he or she will need stronger intervention. For the worst cases, a ventilator is used, which pushes oxygen in and out of the lungs without any help from the baby. After such treatment, the baby will graduate to a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine, which offers lighter pressure to help the infant's lungs open for air. In the least severe cases, supplemental oxygen is given to the baby through a nasal cannula (a thin tube inserted into the nose).
All this treatment usually takes place in a hospital, but sometimes babies come home with supplemental oxygen, or a special monitor that alerts parents when the baby stops breathing. In most cases, apnea of prematurity is outgrown by around 44 weeks gestation.
You may already know that adults who snore or have periods of no breathing while they sleep have sleep apnea. But you may not know babies can sometimes have sleep apnea, too. Sleep apnea is caused either by an obstruction, a brain that doesn't send signals to the body to breathe, or a combination of these. Like apnea of prematurity, babies with sleep apnea stop breathing for at least 20 seconds at a time.
Treatment of Sleep Apnea
In most cases, pediatricians prescribe a medical-grade breathing monitor, which alerts parents when the baby stops breathing. Sometimes a home CPAP machine may also be necessary.