Baby Breathing Patterns – Is it Periodic Breathing, or Apnea?

Baby Sleep

I am frequently asked about normal baby breathing patterns, especially in newborns. It tends to freak parents out when their babies don’t breathe the way they expect with predictable and regular inhalations and exhalations.

Periodic breathing occurs when babies or infants pause in breathing for up to 10 seconds

What is periodic breathing?

Periodic breathing occurs when babies or infants pause in breathing for up to 10 seconds. Often the baby takes a series of rapid, shallow breaths followed by these disconcerting pauses in breathing. This quick-slow-quick baby breathing pattern can be alarming to parents.

It is especially common in premature babies, likely due to their immature brain development. It most commonly occurs during deep sleep, but can occur during conscious times as well.

Periodic breathing causes baby breathing pauses that last no longer than 10 seconds, while in apnea the pauses are 20 seconds or more.

How is periodic breathing and apnea different?

While periodic breathing causes baby breathing pauses that last no longer than 10 seconds, in apnea (pronounced app-knee-ah) the pauses are 20 seconds or more. In apnea, babies can become limp and may appear blue in color (cyanosis). This does not occur in periodic breathing. Apneic babies look unwell. Those with periodic breathing show no distress. Preemie babies are more likely to have both periodic breathing and apnea.

Babies with periodic breathing need no additional stimulus to breathe; they will restart breathing normally on their own.

Safe sleep habits

  • Babies should always be placed on their backs to sleep.
  • There should be nothing that can obstruct baby’s breathing such as blankets, pillows or toys.
  • The head and neck should be in a neutral position to avoid obstructing comfortable breathing.
  • Babies should be on a firm surface. Never place a baby down on a waterbed, pillow, bean bag chair or fluffy comforter to sleep.
  • Do not expose your baby to cigarette smoke, as this increases the risk of  Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
  • What is SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome)? SIDS is the sudden death of an infant that is not predictable or explainable after death.
  • NEVER SHAKE A BABY TO ASSIST WITH BREATHING. This will not help, but may cause significant harm.

See your doctor ASAP if your baby is:

  • Pausing in breathing longer than 15 seconds
  • Turning blue or pale
  • Exhibiting a fever of greater than 100 degrees F or 38 degrees Celsius rectally
  • Limp
  • Vomiting
  • Not responsive to you
  • Not feeding well
  • Having difficulty with breathing, either too quickly or labored.

Overall – trust your instincts as parents. If you are worried about the health or safety of your baby please have him or her checked out by an expert!

Here’s a great article on Tips for Sleep Training Your Baby by our Sleep Expert Jen Kelner.

The general information provided on the Website is for informational purposes and is not medical advice.

Do NOT use this Website for medical emergencies.

If you have a medical emergency, call a physician or qualified healthcare provider, or CALL 911 immediately. Under no circumstances should you attempt self-treatment based on anything you have seen or read on this Website. Always seek the advice of your physician or other licensed and qualified health provider in your jurisdiction concerning any questions you may have regarding any information obtained from this Website and any medical condition you believe may be relevant to you or to someone else. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Website.

Dina M. Kulik, MD, FRCPC, PEM

About Dina M. Kulik, MD, FRCPC, PEM

Dina is a wife, mother of 4, and adrenaline junky. She loves to share children’s health information from her professional and personal experience. More About Dr Dina.

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