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Month One: What You Need to Know About Newborn Breathing

Month One: What You Need to Know About Newborn Breathing


Guest post by Holly Sanford, RN

Welcoming a newborn baby into the world is an exciting time for parents. The growing anticipation is finally met with a little one whom you never dreamed could captivate your heart so deeply.  This love motivates a desire to do anything to ensure the baby’s safety and happiness. It is essential for caregivers to recognize normal versus abnormal characteristics of a newborn, which can sometimes feel unclear to first time parents. Newborn breathing is particularly important to observe in new babies, and it differs in a few ways from that of children or adults.

What does normal newborn breathing look like?

—Newborn babies breathe between 40-60 times a minute. If they are angry, they may temporarily breathe a little faster and readjust to a normal rate when they are calm. Sleeping babies may breathe 30-40 times a minute.

—Newborn babies are belly breathers. Newborns rely more on their abdominal muscles to breathe, whereas adults utilize more of the intercostal muscles when breathing. You will notice the baby’s abdomen move up and down as they inhale and exhale.

—Newborns primarily breathe through their nose for the first few months of life. Babies start breathing through their mouths sometime between 2-6 months.

—Your baby’s color indicates how well oxygen is perfusing the body. Skin color can vary significantly depending on their genetic disposition. Generally, babies will have pinkish hue.

newborn breathing

What are concerning signs for abnormal newborn breathing?

— Breathing more than 60 times a minute or less than 30 times a minute for more than a brief period of time is abnormal.

—Retractions are a sign of respiratory distress. Retractions can be identified by the tugging motion that occurs around the ribs, below the breastbone or below the baby’s neck.

— Nasal flaring occurs when the newborn’s nose abnormally widens in order to take in more oxygen. This may sometimes occur when the baby is feeding or upset, but it should not occur when the baby is at rest.

—One of the most concerning signs of distress occurs if the baby turns a bluish hue called cyanosis. This often indicates cardiac or respiratory complications.

—Head bobbing occurs when the baby uses its neck muscles to help provide more oxygen to the body. It usually presents in a rhythmic motion where the head lifts back and forth.

—Although newborns can grunt for a variety of reasons including passing stool, it may be a concerning symptom especially when seen with any of the other abnormal breathing patterns. Grunting can be distinguished by a short, deep sound.

newborn breathing in mother's arms

Respiratory distress can be caused by a variety of reasons among newborns. Mucous buildup in the nasal passage is a common cause of respiratory distress. Whether the baby is experiencing a respiratory illness or an occasional small amount of residue in the nasal passage from reflux, the Nozebot can assist in clearing the nose to facilitate a normal flow of oxygen. Use 1-2 small drops of saline in each side of the nose prior to suctioning are useful if you notice stubborn mucus.

Caring for a newborn is both exciting and challenging. Recognizing abnormal breathing patterns will allow you to more effectively care for your baby in times of illness.  If you are concerned about your baby’s breathing, notify your baby’s primary care doctor and always call 911 for emergencies.

Holly Sanford is a mother and a pediatric nurse of 9 years with a lifelong passion for helping children and their families. In her free time, she loves cooking new recipes, traveling to unique places and staying active with her family.

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