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Periodic breathing in an infant

Last reviewed dd mmm yyyy. Last edited dd mmm yyyy

Authoring team

  • periodic breathing occurs when the breath pauses for up to 10 seconds at a time
    • may be several such pauses close together, followed by a series of rapid, shallow breaths
      • then the breathing returns to normal
    • a common condition in premature babies in the first few weeks of life. Even healthy full-term babies sometimes have spells of periodic breathing. It usually occurs when the infant is sleeping deeply, but may occur with light sleep or even when awake
    • a review noted that this condition is very common in preterm babies, especially during sleep, and associated with a decreased response from the respiratory centre (2)
      • managed by slightly raising the O2 levels whilst avoiding oxygen toxicity, using saturation monitoring

  • periodic breathing is not the same as 'apnoea'
    • apnoea occurs when breathing stops for at least 20 seconds
      • infant may become limp. There may be a change in skin color (such as blue or pale color around the mouth) and a drop in heart rate before the baby starts breathing normally again
      • sometimes the baby must be stimulated to restart breathing

  • a baby with periodic breathing will always restart normal breathing on its own
    • no stimulation is required
    • although this can be alarming to the parents, it is a harmless condition and it will go away as the baby gets older


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