Having spent nine months in the fluid confines of the mother’s womb, babies often have a hard time adjusting to the new environment where they are required to breathe air. This, compounded by the fact that lungs are one of the last organs to develop in the course of fetal growth, makes babies further underequipped to carry out stable respiratory function.
Thus, infancy is characterized by erratic respiratory patterns with a baby’s breathing rate being much higher than that of older children and adults, fluctuating between 40 to 20 breaths a minute. Moreover, babies tend to have periodic lapses in breathing as well, lasting for less than 10 seconds between rapid breathing spells. Such breathing irregularities in babies are pretty commonplace, and they usually outgrow them as their lungs become better adjusted.
Nevertheless, since the babies cannot speak for themselves, it is essential that parents take special precautions and monitor their infant’s breathing during the initial months. This will alert you to any unusual symptom indicative of a more serious respiratory concern that merits a visit to the pediatrician.
- Premature babies are often born with underdeveloped lungs, which can give rise to various respiratory ailments. The substance surfactant, which is responsible for reducing surface tension in the lungs, is synthesized only during the culminating months of the pregnancy, that is, the 8th or the 9th.
- Because babies do not have a robust immune system, they are more susceptible to various respiratory infections.
- Congenital defects that hamper the formation of the infant’s lungs or air passages can also give rise to breathing problems.
- Because the neurological system that regulates breathing is still immature in babies, they are at a greater risk of respiratory problems.
Some common respiratory problems in children are:
- Viral infections caused by exposure to contaminated environments, people, or surfaces, such as common cold, bronchiolitis, croup, and influenza.
- Rapid and labored breathing due to pneumonia, which causes fluid accumulation in the airways and lung inflammation. Babies can even contract this infection by inhaling meconium, which is the first stool that the infant produces, sometimes while inside the womb.
- At times, very sudden breathing difficulties can occur due to serious health issues, such as epiglottitis and choking.
- A rare respiratory condition called ‘Wet Lung Disorder’ or ‘Transient Tachypnea of the Newborn’, (TTN) arises when the fluid-filled lungs of the unborn baby are not drained quickly enough soon after delivery. While vaginally born babies tend to partially rid themselves of this lung fluid during the birthing process itself, babies born by a C-section are more prone to this problem.
- Given the baby’s lung tissues are extremely fragile and vulnerable to being split, the slightest pressure can cause the air sacs in the lungs to rupture, causing an influx of air into the chest cavity. This air buildup, in turn, puts external pressure on the lungs, making breathing more labored. This is referred to as pneumothorax.
Depending upon the cause of the breathing difficulty, a child may experience symptoms such as:
- Hoarse voice
- Rapid breathing
- Mild coughing
- Nasal flaring to take in more air
- Retracting or sucking the chest in
- Nasal and chest congestion(1)
Mild breathing issues in children can be treated at home with simple lifestyle changes and home remedies. Such treatments should bring comfort, but if symptoms become worse or do not improve, call your doctor right away.
- The best way to ensure that your child has a healthy respiratory function is to prevent premature deliveries. To that end, certain steps such as proactive prenatal care, a nutritious and well-balanced diet, and avoiding tobacco, drug, and alcohol use must be adopted by all pregnant women.
- Keep your child’s pillow and mattresses free from dust particles by using covers.
- Regularly clean or rather change the filters installed in your air conditioners and room heaters.
- Lay your child face down and tap his or her back with a cupped hand. This will help dislodge and expel thick mucus from your baby’s body.
- Babies younger than 6 months should be given adequate breast milk to boost their immunity, especially if your baby was prematurely delivered. In fact, it may be a good idea to breastfeed more often if your child’s respiratory function seems weak.
- Clear your baby’s nasal passages by removing mucus using saline nasal drops and a suction bulb.
- A lukewarm bath will help relax a baby suffering from respiratory unrest.
- Keep the room temperature comfortable for your child.
- Allow your child to get extra rest to fight an infection.
- Do not disrupt the baby’s sleep to administer fluids, unless you notice signs of dehydration.
When to see a doctor
It is imperative for parents to keep track of their baby’s predominant breathing patterns and rates in the normal course. This will help them easily identify any abnormality in their child’s respiratory function including uneven breathing and subsequently, get prompt medical help to address any grave concern.
Immediately consult a doctor if your baby is showing any of the following:
- Gasping for breath
- Difficulty crying or talking due to breathing trouble
- Wheezing that persists for more than 5 days
- Grunts when breathing, which is indicative of an increased effort to breathe
- Lips turning blue
- A continuously rapid rate of breathing, which is greater than 60 breaths per minute
- Looking extremely sick
- Chest retractions getting increasingly visible
If you think your child may have asthma, see your doctor for a diagnosis. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics or an inhaler to use when your child is having trouble breathing.
Here are the top 10 ways to treat breathing problems in babies.
1. Sit in a DIY Steam Room
The steam created from a hot shower can relieve congestion and make breathing a bit easier. The warmth of the moisture will also thin the mucus clogging the lungs and air passages, making it easier to expel. It is best to consult your doctor before going forward with this method and its mode of delivery, as traditional steam inhalation methods have been reported to cause burns in children.(2)
- Fill your bathroom with steam by running a hot shower and keeping the door shut.
- Sit with your baby in the steam-filled bathroom and keep patting your little one’s back.
- Allow your child to inhale the steam for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Repeat as needed.
2. Use a Humidifier
To ease breathing, you can also use a humidifier to add moisture to the air and help make your distressed child more comfortable.
Dry air can irritate the nasal passages, while moist air helps thin the mucus to ease congestion and facilitate the breathing process.(3)
However, a humid environment can be a breeding ground for mold and carpet dust mites, common allergens that can further aggravate your baby’s breathing troubles. Thus, it is important not to go overboard and maintain the humidity levels to less than 50%.
- Use a humidifier in the room where your child sleeps.
- If you don’t have a humidifier, you can place a bowl of hot water in the room to increase the moisture in the air.
- Be sure to put it in a safe place where you or your child won’t accidentally tip it over or step into it.
3. Prevent Dehydration
When treating breathing problems, be sure to give plenty of fluids to your child. This will help prevent dehydration, which can worsen the condition.
Staying well hydrated also helps thin the body’s secretions, making it easier to expel mucus, reduce congestion, and thereby ease breathing. Expelling mucus also helps get germs out of your child’s system and, thus, promotes speedy recovery from a cold or respiratory infection.
- Feed breast milk as well as fruit juice and chilled yogurt to babies 6 months or older. For younger babies, feed plenty of breast milk or baby formula.
- Give lukewarm water or milk to older children at regular intervals.
- Fruit juice, vegetable soup, and clear broths are also good options.
If your child refuses large amounts of fluids at a time, give smaller amounts more often. If the child resists, do not force the fluids down the child’s throat, as that may cause your child to vomit. Instead, give the baby popsicles to suck on.
4. Get a Daily Dose of Sunlight
If your child often suffers from breathing problems related to respiratory infections, it could be due to a vitamin D deficiency.
A 2015 study published in BMC Infectious Diseases reports that maintaining adequate vitamin D in the body may be an effective and inexpensive prophylactic method to ward off certain respiratory tract infections in children.(4)
Sunlight helps with vitamin D synthesis in the body. Thus, it is well advised to expose your child’s arms and face to sunlight for 20 minutes daily. However, be sure to do this early in the morning when the sun is gentler; the rays tend to get harsh later in the day.
Honey is a safe remedy for children aged 1 and older who are having breathing problems due to a common cold, cough, or asthma.
It has potent antibacterial, antioxidant, and immune-boosting properties that promote healing.(5)
- Mix 2 teaspoons of raw honey and 1 teaspoon of fresh lemon juice. Give it to your child every few hours to ease the symptoms.
- Also, you can give your child a glass of warm milk with honey once or twice a day.
Ginger has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral, and antitussive (cough-suppressant) properties that can deal with most of the illnesses that lead to breathing problems.(6)
It also reduces inflammation in the air passages and lungs and prevents asthma attacks. Plus, ginger boosts the immune system, which helps mitigate the risk of contracting an infection in the first place and speeds up recovery from existing ailments.
- For children aged 1 year or older, mix equal amounts of ginger juice, pomegranate juice, and honey. Administer 1 tablespoon of this mixture to your child thrice a day.
- Also, you can give your child ginger candies to help ease the symptoms.
7. Warm Chicken Soup
For older children, homemade warm chicken soup is a great option when suffering from respiratory infections and breathing problems. Chicken soup is highly nutritious and can help relieve congestion.
Chicken contains an amino acid called cysteine, a substance released in the broth during the preparatory process. Cysteine converts to glutathione, a very powerful antioxidant that helps expedite the healing process.(7)
Feed your child homemade chicken soup using organic chicken and supplemented with vegetables, such as carrots, beetroot, and spinach, for added nourishment.
Another good remedy for a child whose breathing difficulty is due to a cough, common cold, or asthma is turmeric.
Turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties that help reduce inflammation in the airways and lungs to make breathing easier.(8) When used regularly, it can work as a long-term control and prevention option for children with recurring breathing issues.
- Put 1 cup of water and a ½ teaspoon of turmeric powder in a pan. Heat it until it boils. Let it cool down a bit. Give this to your child to drink once or twice a day.
- Alternatively, if your child is age 1 or older, you can mix 1 teaspoon of turmeric powder and 2 teaspoons of organic honey. Give it to your child a few times a day.
9. Avoid Secondhand Smoke
It is extremely important to keep all children, particularly those suffering from asthma and other respiratory problems, away from cigarette smoke. Tobacco smoke is a well-known asthma trigger that must be avoided at all costs to prevent attacks.(9)
Do not smoke, and do not allow anyone else to smoke around your child. Avoid taking your child to public places that permit smoking.(10)
In fact, it’s not just tobacco smoke. Any kind of smoke can irritate the lungs and make it difficult to breathe smoothly. Thus, minimize your child’s exposure to other sources of smoke, such as incense, candles, fires, and fireworks.
10. Keep Pets Away
Even though your child may love to play with pets, it is important to keep them away from your child when he or she is sick. Children with asthma, especially, may have increased trouble breathing around pets.(11)
This is because pet’s dander, fur, feathers, and saliva are some of the most common asthma triggers and can worsen breathing problems.
- Keep your pet out of your child’s bedroom completely.
- Do not allow your pet on furniture anywhere in the house.
- Do not allow your child to play with dogs, cats, or other animals.
- Regularly bathe or groom your pet to reduce the amount of dander in your child’s surroundings.
- Signs of Respiratory Distress in Children. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. https://www.chop.edu/conditions-diseases/signs-respiratory-distress-children. Published August 24, 2014.
- Murphy SM, Murray D, Smith S, David O. Burns caused by steam inhalation for respiratory tract infections in children. Clinical Review. https://www.bmj.com/content/328/7442/757.full. Published March 25, 2004.
- Mäkinen TM, Juvonen R, Jokelainen J, et al. Cold temperature and low humidity are associated with an increased occurrence of respiratory tract infections. Respiratory Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18977127. Published March 2009.
- Esposito S, Lelii M. Vitamin D and respiratory tract infections in childhood. BMC Infectious Disease. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4628332/. Published October 28, 2015.
- Cohen HA, Rozen J, Kristal H. Effect of Honey on Nocturnal Cough and Sleep Quality: A Double-blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Study. Pediatrics. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/130/3/465. Published September 2012.
- Moghadamtousi SZ, Kadir HA, Hassandarvish P. A Review on Antibacterial, Antiviral, and Antifungal Activity of Curcumin. BioMed Research International. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4022204/. Published April 29, 2014.
- Shang Y, Siow YL, Isaak CK. Downregulation of Glutathione Biosynthesis Contributes to Oxidative Stress and Liver Dysfunction in Acute Kidney Injury. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5107229/. Published October 30, 2016.
- Prasad S, Aggarwal. BB. Turmeric, the Golden Spice. Cover of Herbal Medicine Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92752/. Published January 1, 1970.
- Hollenbach JP, Schifano ED, Hammel C, Cloutier MM. Exposure to secondhand smoke and asthma severity among children in Connecticut. PLOS ONE. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0174541. Published March 31, 2017.
- Sigaud CHdeS, Castanheira AB de C, Costa P. Association between secondhand smoking in the home and respiratory morbidity in preschool children. Revista da Escola de Enfermagem da USP. http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0080-62342016000400562. Published 2016.
- Almqvist C, Wickman M, Perfetti L, et al. Worsening of asthma in children allergic to cats, after indirect exposure to a cat at school. Americal Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11254526. Published March 2001.