Babies who have breathing problems exhibit certain symptoms that show they are in distress. The normal rate of respirations for a newborn is between 40 and 60 breaths per minute, although this may slow when a baby is sleeping or may be faster if she is crying. Health care professionals who work with newborn infants are specially trained to recognize breathing problems and to provide treatment for newborns in distress.
Babies who are having breathing problems may breathe at a rate greater than 60 breaths per minute despite the absence of crying. Babies may also use muscles of the abdomen, between the ribs or near the neck to breathe, which indicates they are working harder to get air. Other signs of breathing problems include a blueish color around the lips, grunting while exhaling and flaring of the nostrils.
Transient Tachypnea of the Newborn
Transient tachypnea of the newborn occurs when amniotic fluid inside the baby’s lungs remains after delivery, causing breathing difficulties. According to Penn State Children’s Hospital, a baby’s lungs are filled with fluid that may be squeezed out while coming through the birth canal. Lack of crying, a very fast or precipitous delivery or birth by Cesarean section can all increase a baby’s chances of having retained fluid in the lungs.
Respiratory Distress Syndrome
Before birth, an infant’s lungs develop as a collection of tiny air sacs that are used for exchanging oxygen with the bloodstream. The air sacs are lubricated with a substance called surfactant that keeps them open. Respiratory distress syndrome occurs when there is a decreased amount of surfactant in a baby’s lungs, causing difficulty with oxygenation. Because the lungs develop late in pregnancy, respiratory distress syndrome is more common in preterm newborns. The condition is also seen in babies whose mothers have diabetes, as this can affect surfactant production.
Infants can develop infections right after birth, typically when they have been exposed to bacteria either in utero or during the delivery process. Infection with group B streptococcus bacteria can occur with newborns that are exposed during delivery. An infant may have difficulty breathing or may breathe very rapidly with a streptococcus infection. His body is using most of his energy to fight the infection and there is little left for other bodily functions.
Treatment of breathing problems in a newborn includes establishing an adequate airway and supplying sufficient oxygen for the body’s tissues. Infants with severe breathing difficulty may need intubation, where a tube is passed into the airway and oxygen is given through a ventilator. A ventilator can do the work of breathing for a baby so his body does not have to use as much energy and can focus on healing. Babies with respiratory distress syndrome may be given artificial surfactant through a tube placed in the airway. A baby that is having breathing problems related to infection may need supplemental oxygen as well as antibiotics to treat the underlying illness.