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Lung Development and Infant Breathing Disorders

What are infant breathing disorders?

The lungs are some of the last organs to develop in your baby’s body during the prenatal stage. Some important parts of their lungs don’t develop until the end of pregnancy. Surfactant is a substance that helps reduce surface tension in their lungs. It doesn’t develop until the eighth or ninth month of pregnancy. If your baby is born prematurely, their lungs may not have time to develop fully. This can lead to a variety of breathing disorders.

What are the symptoms of infant breathing disorders?

If your baby has a breathing disorder, they may develop symptoms immediately after they’re born or days later. The symptoms can include:

  • the absence of breathing
  • shallow breathing
  • irregular breathing
  • grunting
  • nasal flaring
  • retractions, which happen when your baby pulls their chest in

What causes infant breathing disorders?

Prematurity is the main cause of breathing disorders related to lung development. If your baby’s lungs aren’t fully developed by the time they’re born, they may have problems breathing. Congenital defects that affect their lung or airway development can also lead to breathing problems.

Types of infant breathing disorders

Many types of of breathing disorders related to lung development exist. They usually occur when a baby is born before their lungs have time to develop completely. The following types of breathing disorders can occur:


Apnea occurs when your baby stops breathing temporarily for 20 seconds. It can also happen if they stop breathing for less than 20 seconds and it occurs with bradycardia, or a slow pulse, and cyanosis, or bluish discoloration of the skin. It can occur if your baby is born prematurely and their neurological system is still immature. Their nervous system controls their breathing.


If your baby is born prematurely, and their lungs aren’t fully developed, they have an increased risk of getting pneumonia. Meconium is the earliest stool that your infant produces, sometimes in the womb. It’s possible for them to inhale meconium shortly after birth. This is called "aspiration." This can cause an infection in their lungs or lung inflammation. Pneumonia can occur due to an infection or meconium aspiration.

Respiratory distress syndrome

If your baby was born prematurely, their surfactant might not be fully developed. This can cause their lungs to collapse, making it difficult for them to breath. This condition is called respiratory distress syndrome. It’s most common in newborns, especially those born six weeks prematurely or more.

Bronchopulmonary dysplasia

Babies born more than 10 weeks early are at the greatest risk of bronchopulmonary dysplasia. This condition can occur due to therapy your baby may receive if they have premature lung development. If your baby is born this early, they may need to receive oxygen and breathing help from a mechanical ventilator. This treatment is lifesaving. However, it can also scar your baby’s fragile lungs. This can make it even harder for them to breathe.

What are the risk factors for infant breathing disorders?

Your baby is at higher risk of breathing disorders if they’re born before their lungs have time to mature fully. The earlier your baby is born, the greater their risk of breathing problems.

How are infant breathing disorders diagnosed?

Your baby’s doctor may diagnose them with a breathing disorder, based on observable signs and symptoms. Several diagnostic tests can also help them learn if your baby has a breathing disorder. For example, they may order:

  • an X-ray of your baby’s lungs
  • pulse oximetry to measure the oxygen levels in your baby’s blood
  • an arterial blood gas test to measure the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your baby’s blood, as well as the acidity of their blood

How are infant breathing disorders treated?

Your baby’s treatment plan will depend on their specific condition and the severity of their symptoms. Their doctor may prescribe medications, oxygen therapy, or mechanical ventilation.


Medications for infant breathing disorders include the following:

  • Respiratory medications, such as bronchodilators, may help open up your baby airways to make breathing easier.
  • Artificial surfactant can prevent their lungs from collapsing.
  • Diuretics can get rid of the excess fluid in their lungs.
  • Caffeine is a common treatment for recurring apnea in babies born prematurely.

Oxygen therapy

Breathing problems may stop your baby from getting enough oxygen into their lungs. They may need oxygen therapy.

Mechanical ventilation

If your baby can’t breathe on their own due to lung problems, they may need help from a machine known as a ventilator.

If your baby’s breathing problems are due to a congenital defect, they may need surgery to correct the problem. Your baby’s doctor may also recommend home care, which may involve continued oxygen administration and respiratory therapy.

What is the outlook?

Your baby’s outlook will depend on several factors, such as:

  • their gestational age
  • the type of breathing disorder they have
  • the severity of their symptoms

If your baby’s doctor diagnoses them with a breathing problem, ask them for more information about their specific condition, treatment options, and outlook.

How are infant breathing disorders prevented?

It’s not always possible to prevent your baby from developing breathing disorders. Avoiding premature delivery will lower their risk of developing breathing problems. If you’re pregnant, you can reduce your risk of premature delivery by following these tips for a healthy pregnancy:

  • Talk to your doctor early to make sure you get good prenatal care.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Avoid tobacco.
  • Avoid illicit drugs such as cocaine.
  • Avoid alcohol.

Content licensed from:

Written by: MaryAnn DePietro
Medically reviewed on: May 13, 2016: University of Illinois-Chicago, College of Medicine

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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