Difficulty breathing in the baby


Shortness of breath is a life-threatening condition that can have many different causes. This applies to both babies and adults. However, unlike adults, babies have different symptoms of shortness of breath. Some causes of shortness of breath are specific to babies and young children and no longer occur in older children.

The treatment of shortness of breath is usually an acute emergency picture and often requires the emergency services. In some cases intensive medical treatment is necessary.


The causes of shortness of breath in babies can be many. Basically, it is an undersupply of the body with oxygen.

The body constantly measures the proportion of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood vessels and thus triggers a breath stimulus. If the normal way of oxygen intake via the lungs is blocked or the regulation of breathing does not work properly, it leads to shortness of breath.

Frequent causes in babies are the swallowing of foreign bodies, obstructed airways from outside or the lack of breathing stimulus in premature babies.

Read more on this topic at: Causes of shortness of breath

Obstruction of the airways by mucus

In addition to foreign bodies brought in from outside, the self-produced mucus can obstruct the airways and cause shortness of breath.

Mucus can be produced to an increased extent due to various clinical pictures:

  • Colds
  • Respiratory diseases (e.g. asthma)
  • Allergies

Premature babies in particular often do not yet have the muscular strength of the auxiliary respiratory muscles. This makes it difficult or even impossible to cough up the mucus. The respiratory tract of the affected children must partially be suctioned off and ventilated.


While adults breathe through their nose and mouth, infants are still nasal breathers. If the nose is blocked by a cold, babies cannot take in enough air through the mouth and the oxygen level in the blood drops. This triggers shortness of breath as the children need more oxygen than they can take in through breathing.

This might interest you: What to do if my baby has a cold?

whooping cough

Whooping cough is a serious infectious disease caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis is triggered.

The first stage is normal cold signs, which means that whooping cough is often not recognized early. In the second stage, there are convulsive coughing fits in which the children cannot take in enough oxygen. In extreme cases, it can lead to glottic spasm, which leads to acute suffocation. The shortness of breath associated with whooping cough can be life-threatening, but vaccination can prevent the disease from breaking out.

Read more about the topic here: Vaccination against whooping cough

After vaccination

Serious complications with vaccinations are very rare. In some cases, however, the vaccination can trigger a flu-like infection and thus increase mucus production again. Babies can have difficulty breathing here.

In very rare cases a vaccination can trigger an allergic reaction involving the respiratory tract due to the foreign protein. This is an acute emergency.

Read more about the topic here: Side effects from vaccinations in the baby

How can I recognize the shortness of breath?

Unlike adults, babies cannot deepen their breathing, which is why the otherwise typical sign of shortness of breath, deep wheezing, does not occur. Difficulty breathing in babies manifests itself in different signs:

  • Skin between the ribs is drawn in when the infant inhales
  • Blue around the mouth, hands and feet due to lack of oxygen
  • Babies with shortness of breath do not scream because of lack of strength and air
  • Lack of response to speech


As diverse as the causes of shortness of breath are, as diverse are the accompanying symptoms.

If the cause of the shortness of breath is an infectious disease such as the flu or whooping cough, the babies may have the following symptoms:

  • high fever
  • red and sore nose
  • frequent grasping of the ears in case of otitis media
  • barking cough, red eyes with whooping cough

If there is an allergic cause of shortness of breath, other allergic symptoms may occur:

  • puffy, reddened eyes
  • Rashes

In the case of shortness of breath due to swallowed foreign bodies, the shortness of breath can only be recognized by the skin drawn in between the ribs and the blue color.

With long-term lack of oxygen, the infants can sink into unconsciousness. Many of these diseases require acute treatment by a doctor and, in individual cases, require the emergency services. Parents should not hesitate to seek help if they are short of breath!


Treatment depends on the cause of the shortness of breath.

Acute respiratory distress with severe oxygen deficiency therefore makes acute therapy necessary. The ambulance service gives the baby direct oxygen and tries to bypass the cause of the shortness of breath. If the airways are obstructed, intubation, i.e. the introduction of a ventilation tube, may be necessary. The ambulance may still give certain medications to widen the airways. Some of these drugs can be given with the oxygen, while others must be given directly through the blood.

In the case of allergic causes, there are also antiallergic drugs that slow down the body's reaction and reduce the swelling of the airways. In the case of more frequent breathing difficulties, long-term drug therapy can be considered.

To prevent shortness of breath due to obstructions of the airways, babies and toddlers should not have toys that are too small and use a sleeping bag instead of a blanket at night, as blankets and towels over their mouth and nose restrict breathing. In some cases, nighttime monitoring of oxygen saturation can also be useful so that the parents are woken up in good time.
After a long period of insufficient oxygen supply, the children have to undergo a neurological examination, as the brain can be damaged and further medical care is necessary.

Duration of shortness of breath

The duration of the shortness of breath can also vary greatly depending on the cause.

If the airway is obstructed, removing the cause can relieve the breathlessness. In the case of allergic reactions, an improvement can only be expected after administration of medication. After febrile seizures or coughing attacks, the shortness of breath can go away on its own after a few seconds to minutes.

Premature and newborn babies sometimes need a little stimulus to breathe on their own. To do this, parents can blow lightly in the child's face.

Shortness of breath at night

Because babies with shortness of breath do not cry, parents notice this emergency by accident, if at all.

To prevent suffocation, a firm mattress, a sleeping bag and a room that is not too warm is useful. Blankets and cuddly toys do not belong in the cot. In children who have frequent breathing difficulties, it may be useful to monitor the amount of oxygen in the blood at night so that the parents can be woken up when the saturation level drops.

The greatest risk of nocturnal shortness of breath is the lack of parental supervision!

Difficulty breathing after breastfeeding

Because babies also choke, a small amount of breast milk can get into the windpipe while breastfeeding. Since the infants cannot safely cough up foreign matter in the airways, it becomes difficult to breathe. In most cases this shortness of breath is short-lived. If the shortness of breath occurs more frequently while breastfeeding, the child should be examined further, as malformations are a possible cause.

The shortness of breath is not caused by breastfeeding and can also occur with bottle feeding!

Difficulty breathing after birth

Immediately after birth, the previously useless lungs of the infant unfold. Amniotic fluid that is still in the mouth can cause short-term shortness of breath.
However, various diseases and malformations that can lead to shortness of breath also appear immediately after the birth. Heart defects as well as malformations of the airways and the diaphragm can make emergency surgery necessary immediately after birth.

Premature babies often experience difficulty breathing after birth because their lungs are not yet mature. These children have to be ventilated and need so-called surfactant (surface-active substance) to keep the lungs open, as this cannot be produced independently.

Read more about the topic here: Respiratory distress syndrome in the newborn