Shallow Breathing in Toddlers

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Toddlers are hardy little people who most of the time seem to bounce back easily from life's bumps and challenges. Breathing difficulties,however, can overtake a young child quickly and can be cause for concern if your toddler is also exhibiting other signs of illness. Shallow breathing should be observed first by the parent, and further by a medical professional if the cause is medical in nature.


Shallow breathing, by definition, is breathing that does not fill the lungs and is ineffective. Breathing patterns in your toddler may also become either very rapid or slowed down depending on the cause for the altered breathing. You might see your child's nostrils flaring or chest moving up and down as he struggles to breathe. Shallow breathing that is caused by obstruction of the airways could result in a lack of oxygen; your child's face or lips may be tinged with blue.

Medical Causes

Your toddler's breathing may become shallow if she's fighting a respiratory infection that blocks the airways. A wet, wheezy cough consistent with the common cold, bronchitis, respiratory syncytial virus or pneumonia may result in shallow breathing due to inflammation in the bronchioles that allow air in to the lungs, according to the website What to Expect. Asthma, a chronic respiratory disease in which allergens cause swelling and irritation in the airways, can also prohibit your child from taking a deep breath, leading to shallower breathing. Pleurisy, a disease not seen as often in toddlers as other respiratory conditions, can also cause a shortness of breath and shallow breathing. Viral infection can cause the lungs' membranes -- called pleura -- to swell. A child with pleurisy may experience pain when breathing and, as a result, might try not to breathe very deeply in order to avoid pain.

Non-Medical Causes

Shallow breathing might simply be the effects of a toddler's normal tantrums. Breathing slows down and becomes shallow when you cry; young children who work themselves into a long crying jag, no matter what the reason, may find it's hard to catch their breath and can't take deep breaths until they've calmed down. Though the origin of the shallow breathing is non-medical in nature, the result can be the same as for medical causes for a change in breathing pattern: less oxygen is being delivered to your child's body through shallow breathing.


Treatment for medical causes for your toddler's shallow breathing involve clearing the airways. Depending on the specific illness, treatment can include introducing additional humidity to your child's room at night, pushing fluids to loosen mucus that's causing congestion or taking steroid-based medications to reduce inflammation of the airways. Toddlers who tend toward asthma -- the condition cannot always be accurately diagnosed in such young children, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America -- may include fast-acting inhalers to use during an attack as well as maintenance drugs to keep the lungs clear.

Children who become lightheaded, dizzy or nauseated due to the shallow breathing brought on by a tantrum can benefit from emotional support and coping strategies -- productive ways in which to express frustration, jealousy or other negative emotions -- from a parent. The Kids Yoga Resource suggests doing deep breathing exercises with your child to help combat stress and to teach self-control.

Time Frame

Childhood diseases that affect a toddler's breathing can progress very quickly. Talk to your child -- at a time when he's healthy -- about telling you or another family member when he feels sick. Administering asthma medications quickly or taking your child to the doctor as soon as possible to diagnose a respiratory condition can save your family a lot of worry and reduces the chance of complications that affect your young child's future health.