What Prompts a Newborn Baby to Start to Breathe?

Within the first minute of life, your newborn must take his first breath to make the transition from intrauterine life to life in the outside world. If the baby does not begin to breathe, the birth attendants must stimulate the baby to breathe before secondary apnea occurs. Approximately 10 percent of newborns need help to breathe, according to the American Heart Association 1.

Evaporation Fluids

When your body goes into labor, the labor hormones stop the production of labor fluids and begin the process of drying out the lungs so your baby can take his first breath after birth, according to Dr. Andrew James, writing for The Hospital for Sick Children 2. A very fast labor or a surgical birth can retard this drying process and make it harder for the full-term infant to breathe. If the lungs are filled with amniotic fluid, your baby’s first breaths can be labored and erratic, requiring a response from the birth team. It will take multiple breaths before all the lung fluid is absorbed and air can fully inflate the alveoli, small air pockets in the lung. Once the baby’s lungs are fully inflated, breathing is easier and more regular.

From Dark and Warm to Bright and Cold

The changes in environment that occur once your baby is born can stimulate breathing. These changes can include a drop in external temperature, exposure to light and noise, and the flow of air across the baby’s face, according to MedlinePlus 3. You can observe some babies looking around and taking in new sights if the lights are low enough not to blind the baby. This change is all that is necessary for some babies to breathe.

No Spanking the Baby

Once your baby is completely outside your body, one of the birth team members might begin to briskly rub the baby with a towel, stimulating your baby to take a breath, if he has not already. The brisk rubbing might cause your infant to cry, expanding the lungs and allowing whatever lung fluids are present to be quickly absorbed and replaced by air.

Changes in the Newborn Body

When the umbilical cord is clamped, or the umbilical vessels close down when clamping is delayed, the baby no longer receives air from the mother through the placenta. The ductus arteriosus, a duct that shuttles fetal blood away from the lungs and through the body before birth, begins to constrict after birth. The closing of the duct allows the lungs' blood vessels to fill, inflates the alveoli and helps the baby to breathe.