Why Does My Baby Gasp for Air? (Sleeping, Eating, Excited, Crying)

New parents often find themselves monitoring their newborn baby’s every breath, but it can be difficult to know what’s normal and what’s cause for concern. For instance, is it normal for a baby to gasp for air?

As their respiratory systems mature, it is normal for babies to take periodic pauses in breathing, which may cause them to gasp for air. Though this behavior is usually benign, gasping for air can also be a sign of respiratory distress, which can arise from many conditions, including congestion (usually due to a cold or allergy) or asthma.

Continue reading to learn why your baby is gasping for air and when to be concerned.

Is it normal for babies to sound like they are gasping for air?

According to Respiratory Control and Disorders in the Newborn (Mathew, 2003), periodic breathing, or regular short pauses in breathing, is common in infancy. A newborn’s immature respiratory system may cause these periodic pauses in breathing, which may lead to gasping for air.

The British Lung Foundation states that adults have around 300 million air sacs, or alveoli, in their lungs; however, babies are only born with about 20 to 50 million. In addition to being anatomically underdeveloped, respiratory control is immature in babies.

Babies must learn to strengthen and use their respiratory muscles efficiently to maintain a consistent breathing pattern. Aside from their immature respiratory systems, many conditions and circumstances may cause your baby to have difficulty breathing.

These include:

  • Born premature – Premature babies have even fewer alveoli than full-term babies. They may also have low amounts of surfactant, a protein that coats the alveoli, which helps the lungs intake the maximum amount of oxygen. This deficiency can lead to distressed breathing in preterm infants.
  • Laryngomalacia – Estimated to affect one in 2600 to 3100 newborns, laryngomalacia is the most common cause of infant stridor, a wheeze or squeak caused by impaired airflow. It is caused when the tissue above the vocal cords falls into the airway. Most children outgrow this condition, but some may require surgery.
  • Congestion –  Mucus build-up caused by a cold, viral infection, or allergies, may also lead to a disrupted breathing pattern.
  • Asthma – Inflammation of the bronchial tubes, known as asthma, can restrict air intake, causing labored breathing. Though doctors are not always sure of the cause of asthma, viral infection and environmental factors such as smoke are common triggers.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) – In babies with GERD, the lower esophageal sphincter is weak, allowing stomach acid to flow back into the esophagus. This condition can lead to difficulty breathing due to bronchospasm and the potential aspiration of refluxed stomach contents.
  • Sleep apnea – Between one and five percent of children struggle with sleep apnea, a breathing disorder characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep.

Why does my baby gasp for air randomly?

The potential cause of your baby’s gasping may become more apparent when you think about its frequency and regularity.

A baby who gasps for air infrequently and randomly is most likely exhibiting periodic breathing, which is normal and benign. This is especially true if they exhibit no signs of distress and have no related health complications. If, however, your baby is experiencing breathing difficulty due to another circumstance or condition, you will likely be able to associate their gasping with other signs or symptoms.

Here are some examples:

Reasons Your Child May Have Difficulty Breathing

ConditionSymptoms
LaryngomalaciaWheezing or stridor is persistent
CongestionExcess mucus in their chest or nasal passage (may cause a cough and stuffy nose)
AsthmaContinuous labored breathing
GERDAcid reflux causes pain and frequent vomiting
Sleep apneaBreathing is only disrupted during sleep

What do you do when a baby is gasping for air?

Though there is no treatment needed for periodic breathing, which is a common cause of gasping in infants, it is important to air on the side of caution. As discussed, many other symptoms can cause a baby to gasp for air.

In general, keeping your baby upright in an environment where they are breathing clean air can help reduce shortness of breath. 

If your baby’s breathing difficulty is due to congestion, there are several things you can try at home to alleviate their symptoms. Here are some methods for decongesting your baby provided by MedicineNet:

  • Warm bath – Warm baths are comforting, and the warm moisture can help loosen nasal and chest congestion.
  • Cold mist humidifier – The continuous moisture that humidifiers provide can help alleviate congestion. Cold mist humidifiers are safest for babies because they do not contain a heating element that can cause burns.
  • Eliminate irritants – Avoiding irritants such as smoke, home fragrances, pet dander, and dust can promote easier breathing.
  • Rest – Resting in a warm (but not too warm) environment will help your baby recover from any potential cold or viral infection.
  • Position – Holding your baby upright will allow gravity to help their mucus drain out of their sinuses, allowing them to breathe more easily.
  • Hydration – Ensure your baby is staying hydrated by feeding well. Additional water can be provided to babies who are eating solids.
  • Nasal saline spray or drops – Nasal saline solution, such as the Little Remedies Saline Spray and Drops, helps to loosen and dissolve dried or thick mucus in nasal passages to help decongest.
  • Nasal bulb or tube – A nasal bulb or tube, such as the Frida Baby NoseFrida Snotsucker, can draw out excess mucus, which lets your baby breathe more easily.
  • Massage – Gently massaging your baby’s nasal bridge and the surrounding area can help drain nasal passages. Check out this video on baby massage for cough and congestion by Channel Mum.
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If you suspect your baby has blocked the airway due to a foreign object, perform choking first aid and seek medical attention.

If your baby is unresponsive or unable to breathe, perform infant CPR and call 911.

If you suspect your baby has a condition such as laryngomalacia, asthma, GERD, or sleep apnea, contact your pediatrician.

When should I worry about my baby’s breathing?

Though it is normal for babies to take periodic pauses while breathing, it is important to be aware of potential signs of respiratory distress.

Here are some signs your baby may have trouble breath according:

  • Breathing rate increases
  • Nostrils are flaring
  • Head is bobbing
  • Open mouth
  • Stomach is sucking in more than normal, and the skin is pulling in, or retracting, around the chest.
  • Loud breathing (including grunting, wheezing, and gasping)
  • Clammy skin
  • Coughing and congestion

Additionally, a baby that is experiencing labored breathing may:

  • Have difficulty sleeping or getting comfortable
  • Act tired and lethargic
  • Be more fussy than normal
  • Eat less or take frequent breaks while eating
  • Unlatch frequently while nursing

Contact your pediatrician if you are noticing early warning signs that your baby is experiencing respiratory issues.

Call 911 or get immediate medical help if:

  • Your baby is in severe respiratory distress.
  • Your baby stops breathing for more than fifteen seconds.
  • You are unable to wake your baby.
  • Your baby skin begins to turn blue (especially noticeable around the lips, gums, and fingernails).

Why does my baby gasp for air while breastfeeding?

Detailed in a study published in the International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, a great deal of coordination is involved in efficient breastfeeding.

Swallowing and breathing share a pathway (the pharynx) but cannot be accomplished simultaneously. As your baby is learning to suck, swallow, and breathe while breastfeeding, they may occasionally gasp for air.

If you find that your baby has difficulty nursing and continuously struggling to breathe, you may dealing with one or more of the following:

  • Oversupply of milk occurs when a nursing mother is producing more milk than her baby needs. This can cause a host of issues, including causing the nursing baby to choke, gulp, and sputter while nursing. This can restrict a baby’s oxygen and cause them to gasp.
  • Forceful letdown occurs when milk is forcefully ejected from the milk duct. This is common in mothers with oversupply and can cause a nursing baby to gasp for air.
  • Aggressive nursing may prevent your baby from breathing normally, which may cause them to gasp for air. 
  • Nasal congestion can greatly affect your baby’s air intake because babies almost exclusively breathe out of their nose until about three or four months old. If the mucus is blocking their nasal pathways, babies may struggle to intake air while nursing.

Here are some methods to use to help your baby maintain a healthy, comfortable breathing pattern while sleeping.

How to Keep Your Sleeping Baby Breathing Clearly

ComplicationPotential Solutions
Oversupply of Milk
  • Respond to your baby’s hunger cues rather than a feeding schedule.
  • Allow your baby to dictate feeding frequency and milk volume.
  • Pump only when it is necessary or needed for comfort. 
  • Try “Block feeding,” which involves offering your baby the same breast for a block of time, then switching, to help slow down your milk supply. 
Forceful letdown
  • Express milk for two to three minutes before nursing.
  • Change nursing positions; for instance, laying on your back will allow gravity to work against your milk flow.
  • Apply pressure behind the areola to restrict milk flow.
Aggressive nursing
  • Nurse your baby more often.
  • Ensure your baby has a good latch, so they can nurse efficiently. 
Nasal congestion
  • Nurse your baby in an upright position.
  • Use moisture to loosen congestions (i.e. warm bath, humidifier, nasal spray).
  • Avoid irritants such as smoke.
  • Use a nasal bulb or tube to help clear excess mucus. 

Why does my baby gasp for air after feeding or eating?

If you notice your baby gasping for air after nursing or eating, they may have aspirated milk, a drink, or solid food.

According to Cedars-Sinai, a nonprofit academic healthcare organization, aspiration refers to a foreign material (like food or drink) entering the airways or the lungs.

Aspiration is widespread in children with the following conditions:

  • Dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, may be persistent due to many physiological issues, including weak esophageal muscles. Children with health problems are more likely to have dysphagia.
  • GERD is characterized by excessive acid reflux, which occurs when stomach contents flow back into the esophagus.

If your baby is prone to aspiration, familiarize yourself with infant choking first aid measures.

Why does my baby gasp for air while drinking a bottle?

As with breastfeeding, intaking too much milk or formula from a bottle may prevent your baby from breathing normally.

Gasping for air while bottle feeding is a sign that your baby is having difficulty keeping up with their bottle’s flow rate. Switching to a nipple with a slower flow rate can help alleviate this issue.

Here are the levels offered by Dr. Brown’s:

Nipple LevelAge SuggestionLevel Description
Premature0+ monthsFor premature babies and babies switching between breastfeeding and bottle feeding.
Level 10+ monthsFor babies who are exclusively bottle feeding and are not experiencing any feeding difficulties.
Level 23+ months For babies who are taking longer to feed using Level 1. These babies may be starting some solid foods.
Level 36+ monthsFor babies who are taking longer to feed using Level 2. These babies may be sitting up and eating solid foods. A pediatrician may suggest thickening their milk or formula.
Level 49+ monthsFor babies who are taking longer to feed using Level 3 and have exhibited no feeding difficulties. These babies may be eating finger foods and drinking from a sippy cup. A pediatrician may suggest thickening their milk or formula.
Y-cut9+ monthsFor babies who are drinking thicker liquids or cereal.

Why does my baby gasp for air while sleeping?

If your baby is gasping for air while they sleep, they may have a sleep disorder known as sleep apnea.

According to Dr. Zarmina Ehsan of Children’s Mercy Sleep Center, there are two types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is characterized by a narrowing of the airways or an obstruction, which leads to reduced oxygen intake. This is seen in babies with craniofacial syndromes, such as down syndrome, and babies with laryngomalacia.
  • Central sleep apnea (CSA) occurs when your brain is slow to send your body signals to breathe during sleep. This type is rarer but may be correlated with premature babies, babies whose mothers smoked during pregnancy, and babies with neurological disorders or injuries.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) maintains that a sleep study performed by a clinician using a polysomnogram must be done to diagnose a child with sleep apnea.

Consult your pediatrician or a sleep specialist if your baby is consistently exhibiting any of the following behaviors during sleep:

  • Pausing for breaths
  • Choking
  • Breathing loudly
  • Gasping for air
  • Snoring

Why does my baby gasp for air when excited?

As your baby begins to engage more with their surroundings, you may notice them expressing excitement by gasping.

In fact, a study from the University of Geneva found that babies begin to link facial and vocal characteristics to emotions as early as birth.

By four to six months, babies can express their own emotions. If your baby is gasping in excitement, they may have learned that behavior from you or another loved one.

Hearing your baby gasp for air can be alarming in any context, even when it’s with excitement. Some parents have noted that they can enjoy their little ones’ excited gasps because they know they are not distressed or uncomfortable.

Why does my baby gasp for air while pooping?

One reason you may notice your baby gasp while they are pooping is that they are holding their breath.

It is not uncommon for babies and children to hold their breath while pooping and then let out a gasp after completing their bowel movements. In most cases, these children are not in danger of low oxygen and are in complete control of their breath.

Straining while pooping, however, may be a sign that they are constipated. Consult your pediatrician if you suspect your baby is struggling with constipation.

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