Parents and caregivers naturally pay close attention to their babies’ behaviors--especially activities essential to life, such as breathing and sleeping--and note any abnormalities or oddities. A quietly sleeping infant seems sweet and charming, but a baby who grunts while dozing might amuse, confuse or worry his parents. Although many healthy babies occasionally grunt while sleeping, you should evaluate your child carefully because grunting sometimes indicates a serious medical problem.
Normal, healthy babies often make strange noises as they sleep, including grunts, explains Elizabeth Pantley of Midwifery Today. A baby’s slumber comprises cycles of deep sleep and light sleep; during the lighter portion of the sleep cycle, the baby commonly wiggles and emits various sounds, ranging from soft sighing to grunting to even moderate fussing. In a healthy baby, this behavior does not indicate any distress or need for attention; it simply helps the baby fall back asleep.
Some types of grunts suggest respiratory distress; in other words, grunting while sleeping might indicate that your baby struggles to inhale sufficient oxygen. The act of grunting pulls in extra air, increasing the oxygen level in the baby’s lungs. In clinical terms, “grunting respirations” represent an attempt to amplify how much air the baby’s lungs can hold. Accordingly, grunting might signify an unhealthy increase in the baby’s “work of breathing”--the amount of effort needed to breathe effectively and sufficiently--according to David E. Hertz, M.D.
Grunting can accompany several types of lung problems. If a baby grunts frequently while sleeping, then she might suffer from low lung volume, which explains why she struggles to inhale sufficient oxygen. Grunts can also signify pneumonia or a wide range of other lung diseases that cause respiratory problems. As a single symptom, though, grunting does not conclusively indicate disease or defect. For example, a study published in the "Journal of the American Medical Association" concluded that although grunting is sometimes a symptom of pneumonia, its presence does not prove that the baby has pneumonia; after all, the study notes, healthy infants grunt periodically. The absence of grunting, though, can help rule out a pneumonia diagnosis, which emphasizes grunts' significance in pneumatic infections.
To determine whether your baby’s grunting is normal or problematic, consider whether she shows any other signs of sickness or respiratory trouble. If your baby suffers from lethargy, fever, weight loss, or blue skin or tongue, then her grunting probably indicates a serious respiratory problem, explains NetWellness. For an otherwise healthy baby--one who, while awake, eats well and seems happy and active--grunting rarely signifies illness. Grunting as a sign of respiratory trouble occurs more commonly when the child is awake, because a wakeful baby expends more energy and hence requires more oxygen. If your baby appears healthy in general and doesn’t grunt while awake, then her grunting probably just means that her sleep cycle has reached its lighter segment.
If you worry about your baby’s grunting or if he shows any other worrisome symptoms--whether they seem related --then take him to a doctor for an expert evaluation. To assess a baby’s grunting respirations thoroughly, one must consider a complex list of detailed indicators, such as respirations per minute, depressions of the skin among the bones in the torso, and categorization of grunt type. Most of the time, sleep grunting doesn’t mean anything troublesome. However, because grunting could indicate a serious respiratory problem or even upcoming respiratory failure, consult a medical professional to protect your baby’s health.