Heart Rate & Respiration in Children

Along with blood pressure and temperature, a child’s heart rate and respiration provide a picture of the child’s overall health. Also referred to as the “respiratory rate,” a child’s respiration refers to the number of breaths taken in one minute. The heart rate, on the other hand, refers to the number of times the heart beats per minute. When caring for children, you should understand the normal values for heart rate and respiration in children, along with the implications of abnormal readings.

Counting Heart Rates

Also referred to as the “pulse rate,” the heart rate can be checked by locating the arteries near the wrist, elbow or neck. To locate the pulse points, use your index and middle finger. Press gently against the skin to find the pulsating artery near the wrist, inner elbow or side of the neck. Count the number of times the artery pulses against your fingers in one full minute.

Normal Respiratory Rate

According to the New York State Department of Health, a child’s normal respiratory rate and pulse rate vary based on age. The normal respiratory rate is 30 to 60 breaths per minute from birth to one year, 24 to 50 breaths per minute from one to three years and 22 to 34 breaths from three to six years old. As the child moves into school-age, the normal respiratory rate slows. From age six to twelve, the normal rate is 18 to 30 breaths per minute, while 12 to 16 breaths is the normal rate from age 12 to 18.

Counting Respirations

To ensure an accurate reading, the respiration rate should be taken when the child is relaxed and at rest. To complete the test, count the number of times the chest rises in one full minute. If you cannot observe the rise of the child’s chest, place your hand on the child’s back to feel the rise and fall with each respiration. If possible, do not let the child know you are counting his respirations. In many cases, children and adults modify their normal breathing rates when they know someone is counting.

Normal Heart Rate

From birth to one year, the normal pulse rate falls between 100 and 150 beats per minute. The normal pulse rate drops slightly to 90 to 150 beats per minute from age one to three and 80 to 140 beats per minute from age three to six. From age six to twelve, the normal pulse rate is 70 to 120 beats per minute, while 60 to 100 beats is normal from age 12 through 18.

Abnormal Rates

During periods of exercise, excitement, anxiety or fear, a child’s heart rate and respirations almost always increase. However, quick respirations or a fast heart beat might also be related to injury or illness. During an injury or illness, the body works rapidly to heal itself. As a result, the heart beats quickly to deliver oxygen and nutrients throughout the body and the lungs work swiftly to provide adequate oxygen.


Fortunately, abnormal heart rates and abnormal respiratory rates are relatively harmless for a short period of time. However, if the heart beats too rapidly or too slowly for too long, the heart eventually becomes unable to deliver a sufficient amount of blood to the body. Similarly, if the respirations are too quick or too slow for too long, the body’s levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide become imbalanced. In these instances, a serious medical condition may develop. To ensure the child’s health and safety, consult a physician regarding an abnormal heart rate or respiratory rate.