When to see a doctor
It is normal for babies to breathe faster than adults and older children. Some infants briefly breathe more quickly than usual or stop breathing for several seconds. As long as their breathing returns to a normal rate, it is not usually a cause for concern.
If a baby continues to breathe rapidly, it may mean they are struggling to get enough air.
This article looks at the normal breathing rate for babies, the causes of fast breathing, and when to see a doctor.
A baby’s regular rate of breathing is about triple an adult’s rate. While an infant’s breathing rate may seem rapid, it is only abnormal if it exceeds 60 breaths per minute.
Very young babies may have “periodic breathing of infancy.” This means that their rate of breathing might not be consistent and regular. They can stop breathing for several seconds, then take several rapid breaths before returning to a more regular breathing rate.
A young infant who breathes irregularly, or briefly breathes faster than usual, is usually okay as long as the rate of breathing returns to 30–60 breaths per minute, and there are no other signs of breathing issues.
Every infant is different, but a normal healthy range for the first year of life is 30–60 breaths per minute.
Breathing usually slows when a baby is sleeping to around 30–40 breaths per minute. It may increase when a baby cries or plays.
Breathing gradually slows as a baby gets older, so parents or caregivers may notice that their 10- or 11-month-old breathes more slowly than they once did. Between the ages of 1–3, breathing slows to 24–40 breaths per minute.
Babies rapidly breathe when something affects their respiratory system, such as not getting enough oxygen. Doctors call rapid breathing tachypnea.
When a baby exerts themselves, such as during crawling or crying, they need more oxygen, so their breathing rate may increase. This is usually harmless as long as their breathing returns to its regular rate.
Here are a few reasons why a baby might breathe rapidly.
Transient tachypnea of the newborn
Transient tachypnea of the newborn (TTN) is a condition that occurs in newborns, especially those born before 39 weeks.
It develops when there is a delay in the baby’s ability to clear fluid from the lungs after birth. This makes it difficult for them to get enough oxygen, which may lead to respiratory distress.
Unlike other causes of respiratory distress, TTN usually goes away on its own within 3 days of symptoms first occurring.
Treatment depends on the severity of symptoms and how long they last. The baby may need medication, oxygen, or a stay in a neonatal intensive care unit for monitoring.
Crying or distress
Babies sometimes breathe more rapidly when they are in pain or distress. For example, an infant may breathe faster when they are fussy and upset after an immunization, or when they are hungry and cannot immediately nurse or get a bottle.
Parents and caregivers should act quickly to comfort distressed babies.
A brief increase above 60 breaths per minute due to distress or crying is safe, as long as the breathing rate returns to normal.
If an infant’s breathing does not slow, or if they seem to be hyperventilating or having trouble breathing, there may be another problem.
Infants cannot cool themselves as well as older children and adults, so keep young babies out of direct sunlight and hot temperatures. Dress babies in light layers.
If a baby breathes rapidly in heat, they might not sweat, or only sweat in small amounts.
Give the baby formula or allow them to nurse, and move them to a cooler area immediately. If they continue breathing rapidly even after a parent or caregiver attempts cooling, call a doctor.
Respiratory distress means that the baby is struggling to breathe. Left untreated, it can become life threatening.
Several conditions can cause respiratory distress, including:
- Prematurity: The underdeveloped lungs of premature babies make it more difficult for them to breathe.
- Infections and illnesses: Certain illnesses can make it hard to breathe. For example, a lung infection could make breathing more difficult in babies than in older children and adults.
- Aspiration: This occurs when a baby inhales fluid. It is more common among newborns, who may aspirate fluid during birth.
- Physical injuries: Damage to the baby’s lungs or other parts of their respiratory system may cause them to breathe more rapidly as they try to get air.
Respiratory distress is a medical emergency. Some other symptoms a baby might have include:
- flaring their nostrils when breathing
- breathing louder than usual
- pulling in their chest muscles to breathe, causing the ribs to become more visible when they take a breath
- clammy skin
- open mouth
- seeming lethargic or restless
- changes in behavior
- head-bobbing when breathing
- changes in the color of the baby’s skin, lips, tongue, or nail beds
See a doctor immediately if there are any signs of respiratory distress. If a person’s regular doctor is not available, call 911 or go to the emergency room.
Some other reasons to call a doctor include:
- an otherwise healthy-seeming baby breathes faster than usual for a prolonged period
- a baby has a fever and rapid breathing
- a newborn has changes in their breathing, especially if they were born prematurely
- a baby has trouble eating
- the baby is unable to settle after crying
Babies breathe differently from adults and children. Their breathing patterns may seem scary or unusual and are fast compared to adults. This rapid breathing itself does not mean something is wrong.
However, if a baby appears to be breathing faster than they usually do, this could indicate a serious issue, and people should call a doctor.