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Toddler Breathing Problems

By Regan Hennessy ; Updated June 13, 2017

A toddler having breathing problems can be a terrifying experience, especially if you don’t know the cause of the difficulties. Although some cases of breathing problems in toddlers arise and disappear quickly, others may develop into chronic or serious issues. Being familiar with the common causes of toddler breathing problems can help you develop an awareness of what could be contributing to your toddler’s breathing trouble as well as know when to get medical help.

The Facts

As with adults, toddlers inhale air to provide oxygen for their bodies and exhale to flush out waste gases, such as carbon dioxide. According to Dr. James Nocton, associate professor of pediatrics at Medical College of Wisconsin and coauthor of the book “On Call Pediatrics,” healthy toddlers generally breathe between 30 and 40 times per minute. Breathing issues typically arise as a result of problems with one or more parts of the respiratory system, which includes the mouth and nose, trachea and lungs. Breathing problems in toddlers could vary from mild nasal congestion to complete blockage of the trachea or windpipe.


Your toddler’s breathing problem may reveal itself in a variety of ways, depending upon the cause and severity of the respiratory issues. According to Dr. Nocton, symptoms of respiratory distress, or breathing difficulty, may include rapid breathing, shallow breathing, wheezing, flared nostrils, snorting and a whistling sound during breathing. Other signs of breathing problems include excessive coughing, mouth breathing and temporary cessation of breathing.


Common causes of toddler breathing problems include allergies, asthma and upper respiratory illnesses. Allergies occur when your toddler develops sensitivity to certain substances, such as pollen and pet hair, which leads to various symptoms—including nasal congestion and sneezing—that may contribute to breathing problems. Characterized by inflammation in the bronchi and bronchioles—small tubes in your toddler’s lungs—asthma often arises as a result of allergies and is difficult to diagnose in toddlers and young children, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Upper respiratory illnesses, such as the common cold, often cause a runny or stopped-up nose, as well as a sore throat and post-nasal drip, all of which could lead to breathing issues in toddlers.


Severe breathing problems in your toddler may be life-threatening and warrant immediate medical attention to minimize potential complications. Contact your doctor if you’re concerned about your toddler’s breathing or if you notice her struggling or gasping for breath. In the event that your toddler becomes sweaty, excessively pale or blue, seek medical attention immediately, as recommended by Robin Barker, a registered nurse and author of the book “The Mighty Toddler.”


Since toddlers and young children frequently develop short-term illnesses, such as the common cold, croup and the flu, knowing how to respond to mild breathing problems can help you remain calm in a potentially stressful situation. When dealing with croup, Barker suggests that you focus on soothing your child in order to slow his breathing and heart rate. Consider humming one of your toddler’s favorite songs or reading her a story while you hold her to help distract her so she doesn’t panic. According to the Mayo Clinic, humidifiers may lessen nasal congestion and a runny nose, while saline nose drops can help thin mucus secretions.

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