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What Causes Rapid Breathing in Infants & How is it Treated?

Rapid or fast breathing is very common in infants and newborns. In most of the cases, there is no need to worry about unless it accompanies with any other symptom. In most of the cases, such infants with a fast heartbeat look healthy and can easily be breast fed. However, it is important to know what causes rapid breathing in infants and how to treat it. These causes need proper attention and care, because if they are left untreated they can be very detrimental to health of the child. Being a parent, one should be acquainted with all the causes of fast breathing and knowing when which needs immediate medical attention.

What Causes Rapid Breathing In Infants

What Causes Rapid Breathing In Infants

Respiratory troubles are common in infants but some may be due to serious underlying causes that need immediate medical attention. Some of the conditions that cause rapid breathing in infants include

  • Pneumonia – When rapid and intense fast breathing occurs in infants without any type of wheezing or croup sound, most probably it is a warning sign of pneumonia. It is one of the commonest causes of rapid breathing in infants, along with cough and fever. The child may breathe heavily and also show other signs of irritability, cough, fever and rapid heartbeat etc.
  • Neonatal Respiratory Distress Syndrome – This disease is caused by immature or undeveloped lungs which lack the protective surfactant that helps the lungs inflate. In RDS or respiratory distress syndrome, infants may not be able to breathe properly. RDS or respiratory distress syndrome is common in newborns and infants although RDS running in families or maternal diabetes can possibly increase the risk of this disease. The symptoms of RDS or respiratory distress syndrome appear shortly after the birth of the child. Besides fast, rapid and shallow breathing, they also include the bluish skin tints, nostril flaring, puffy limb and even apnea when breathing stops. This is a serious condition that causes rapid breathing in infants, which often needs immediate medical treatment.
  • Transient Tachypnea – Often referred to as “wet lungs”, transient tachypnea or TTN surfaces or appears just after the birth of child. Actually this disease, transient tachypnea or TNN occurs when the lungs of newborns are filled with a very fetal liquid which usually clears itself when the baby passes through a birth canal and takes the first breath in the air. Actually babies who are delivered by the cesarean, small sized babies, or preterm babies and whose mothers are suffering from asthma or diabetes are at higher risk of Transient Tachypnea Newborn. The symptoms of transient tachypnea include rapid breathing in infants with more than 60 breaths taking per minute. Flared up nostrils, skin cyanosis in which the skin around the mouth and nose bluish in color. In treatment of transient tachypnea, doctors generally monitor the babies and provide artificial oxygen when needed, if the breathing rates slow down.
  • Meningitis – Meningitis in children is a very serious condition. It is a disease of brain when the meninges or the outer covering of the brain are inflamed. This condition in infants normally occurs due to various bacterial infections. This too is a serious infection and an important condition that causes rapid breathing in infants. Other important symptoms include fever, fast and rapid heartbeat, neck rigidity, exposure to light, lethargy seizures.

How is Rapid Breathing in Infants Treated?

A brief period of fast or shallow breathing is not a concern and it would normalize in some time. But those fast heartbeats accompanied with other symptoms like fever, no sound in breathing, discoloration of skin etc are of concern and infants, in such cases need immediate medical treatment. How to treat rapid breathing in infants is a major concern, but if you are able to understand the problem and seek timely medical attention, it can be managed well.

These infants need treatments based on the underlying cause of their disease. Such children actually need constant monitoring in the hospital set up. If infants are suffering from pneumonia, they may need antibiotic, intravenous fluid and artificial oxygen.

Here are some cases when the child needs immediate medical treatment. Seek immediate medical attention if the infant

  • Breathes fast on a regular basis
  • Has fever accompanied with rapid breathing
  • Is showing poor breast feeding
  • Has breathing problems, even if you have cleaned the nose
  • Has bronchiolitis ( a very common lung infection in children)
  • Has severe attacks of coughing or is coughing persistently.
  • Cant tale a deep breath because of some chest pain
  • Has persisting fever
  • Is sluggish and vomiting
  • Has a cold that has worsen over time

Breathing Patterns in Infants

If you know the breathing patterns in infants, it is easy to differentiate rapid breathing in infants from abnormal breathing variations.

Abdominal breathing is very common in infants. As the child grows, abdominal breathing gets replaced by the chest breathing although both the methods of breathing are retained till the adulthood. As the child grows chest breathing starts becoming normal. However, if the child is suffering from breathing problems many mental, physical illnesses can occur due to it.

Deep Breathing

Just like abdominal breathing, deep breathing is also not a major concern for the child since new born infants are into this habit of taking breaths. While asleep, new born infants take what is to be known as periodic breathing. They breathe progressively and deeply. They pause up for then 15 seconds and then they again take deep breaths. Generally they start with deep breaths. Briefing down some points related to deep breathing in children.

Thus, while there are various normal types of breathing, any changes in breathing of infants associated with other complaints must be evaluated. As there are various factors that cause rapid breathing in infants, how to treat it mainly depends on proper diagnosis of underlying cause.


  1. Mayo Clinic: https://www.mayoclinic.org/
  2. American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP): https://www.aap.org/
  3. National Institutes of Health (NIH): https://www.nih.gov/

Also Read:

Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:August 2, 2023

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