Why Do Babies Breathe Fast?

Your Baby's Breathing: How Fast Should It Be and How to Tell if It's Normal

Every parent of a newborn has experienced a moment or two of panic followed by second-guessing their baby's breathing, whether it seems as if it might be too fast, too slow, too noisy or just irregular in some way. Most of this worry is because of the completely normal way babies breathe, which is faster and more erratic than the breathing of toddlers, children and adults, and also sometimes punctuated by scarily long pauses. It is very important, however, to be able to recognize when your baby's breathing is abnormal and a cause for concern. Breathing problems, especially when accompanied by other troublesome symptoms, require immediate medical attention.

Normal Breathing Patterns for Babies

Close Up Of Father Holding Baby Daughter In Nursery

Rapid Breathing in Newborns

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Most newborn babies take from 40 to 60 breaths per minute; babies from 3 to 6 months old usually take 30 to 60 breaths per minute; and from 6 to 12 months old, typical breathing slows down to 24 to 30 breaths per minute. During the night, newborns breathe in cycles. After falling asleep, a baby's breathing tends to get faster and deeper, then slower and shallower again, with occasional pauses of 5 to 10 seconds. Various noises and grunts are normal as well. As your baby gets older, these periods of erratic breathing will become less noticeable.

Babies breathe faster than older children and adults because their lungs are relatively small in proportion to their bodies. As babies grow, their respiratory systems mature, and the size of their lungs relative to their bodies grows, resulting in a gradually slower rate of breathing. Some health professionals believe that newborn babies' erratic breathing patterns are based on their bodies' underdeveloped ability to detect carbon dioxide in the blood, which occasionally delays the instinct to take a breath. You might have also noticed that your baby breathes out of his nose, not his mouth. This characteristic allows a baby to breathe while eating.

How to Recognize Abnormal Breathing

If your baby is persistently breathing too fast ‒ taking over 60 breaths per minute ‒ call a doctor immediately, or, in urgent situations, 911. Other signs of abnormal breathing are flared nostrils, a grunting noise at the end of every breath, deeper-than-usual muscle retractions in the chest and neck, and pauses in breathing for longer than 15 seconds. Look for other symptoms that could indicate a medical problem, such as:

  • Cyanosis, meaning the baby's body appears blue because her blood is not getting enough oxygen. Check the lips and tongue for blueness, rather than the extremities.  
  • Coughing and hoarse-sounding cries.
  • A crackling sound while breathing.
  • A fever.
  • Lethargy.

There are many possible causes of abnormal breathing, ranging from a simple cold to more serious medical conditions, so it's important to consult a doctor as soon as possible when you have concerns.