An infant's developing respiratory system may occasionally cause heavy breathing as well as sounds that may be disconcerting to a parent. Most of these issues are normal and can be addressed with simple solutions. However, there are cases where breathing issues are signs of a larger problem.
Common Heavy Breathing Issues in Infants
Flexible and soft developing tissue in the trachea often causes low, raspy, heavy breathing in a newborn. This condition is called tracheomalacia and is rarely harmful to breathing. Because a newborn breathes through his nose, when it becomes blocked with mucous or milk, he may breathe more heavily or his breathing may make a whistling noise. This usually stops when you use a bulb syringe to suction out the blockage. At times, this mucus or milk may cause chest congestion. You can alleviate this by holding your baby upright and having him sleep in a car seat for a few hours until you can visit the doctor. Your newborn may also wheeze during breathing. This is normal if wheezing disappears after using steam, placing your baby upright or softly clapping her on the back.
Pneumonia, Croup and Asthma in Infants
If your baby has a bout of pneumonia, which is caused by fluid in the lungs, he will likely have fast, labored breathing and wheezing. This breathing is commonly accompanied by a constant cough. Heavy, raspy breathing with hoarse voice and a bark-like cough could mean your baby has croup. This is not treatable with antibiotics, but is usually not severe. Asthma will present itself with a high squeal during breathing out and the ribs, neck or abdomen caving in and out. Consult a doctor if your baby shows these symptoms.
Other Reasons for Concern
There certainly are cases when a parent should be concerned about her infant's heavy breathing. Quick breathing--over 70 breaths per minute--is one. Grunting at the end of a breath is a sign of the body's working harder to open airways, as are flaring nostrils and the muscles below the ribs moving in and out much more deeply than usual. Signs of poor blood oxygen coupled with heavy breathing include blue lips, tongues and vaginas in females. This condition is called cyanosis and is common when a baby has contracted pneumonia. If your baby shows signs of trouble breathing along with trouble eating, decreased energy or fever, contact your pediatrician. Any breathing problem that persists should be discussed with your doctor.
Respiratory Distress Syndrome
This condition is the most common lung problem in premature babies. Also called hyaline membrane disease, the illness is caused by the lack of sufficient surfactant in a preemie's lungs. This substance allows the lung air sacs to open up adequately. Surfactant isn't usually produced until late in a pregnancy, which is why respiratory distress syndrome affects primarily premature babies. The result is too much carbon dioxide in the lungs. Preemies higher at risk include caucasians, males and newborns with mothers suffering from gestational diabetes. Artificial surfactant is available to alleviate this condition.
Apnea of Prematurity
This condition occurs in preemies in the first one to two days of life. There are two types of apnea: central and obstructive. Central apnea occurs when the baby's system simply doesn't remember to breathe. Obstructive apnea occurs when baby attempts to breathe, but the airway collapses, preventing sufficient oxygen from entering the lungs. Many preemies have a bit of both types of apnea. When a preemie is showing signs of apnea, he must be hooked up to a ventilator, which helps him breathe. If his heart, breathing or oxygen blood rates decrease below a critical level, hospital staff is notified by an alarm, and they will stimulate the baby physically to resume breathing. If this doesn't work, oxygen may be administered with a bag. There are drugs that also help stimulate the nervous system. Premature apnea usually resolves itself by the time the baby reaches 40 weeks.