When they were babies, there were lots of tears in both of my daughters. Some of them are mine. But seriously, they were babies. And babies cry.
Sometimes when they cry really hard, a baby will be gasping for air while crying. This is quite normal. But there are other times when that gasping might be a warning sign that you should take to your pediatrician.
We’re moms. We worry. About EVERYTHING. Is it normal? Is it not? Hang in there, Mama. I’ll explain it all.
Is it normal for a baby to sometimes gasp for air?
Babies are funny little creatures. I say this because, well, for one, they look like little old people. For another, you, like me, probably read every baby book there was under the sun to be prepared, yet you are totally not. No judgment; I was not prepared either.
So when a newborn is gasping for air, it can be very alarming. Is something stuck in their throat? Is something wrong with them? Or is it normal?
Much depends on what’s actually going on. Sometimes they just gasp and have a few wonky breaths and then all is normal. When a baby is making gasping sounds but breathing fine, it’s because they were likely not getting enough oxygen. You’ll notice this when a baby is gasping for air while crying, which is why you’ll want to calm them down to normalize everything.
Other times though, your baby might actually have something stuck in their throat (most common when they start grabbing at things and putting their fingers in their mouth). And other times still, it could be a medical condition. I’ll go into further details below.
Why does my baby sound like he can’t breathe?
You’ll want to review a few things to see the cause of a baby gasping for air. I’ll list the common culprits to keep an eye on.
When the baby is gasping for air after feeding
This one is a little frightening because newborns take time to get the whole breathe-suck-swallow thing down. So your tiny baby might hold her breath just for a short bit while nursing. Since they hold their breath, they will gasp.
Most babies can handle breathing and suckling, but sometimes, this can be challenging, especially in the beginning.
Maybe it’s reflux
Reflux is very common in babies. If your baby spits up at most feedings and you notice any gasping, this is likely the problem. It may resolve on its own or carry on into adulthood. You should discuss the problem with your pediatrician.
If you notice your baby is gasping around feedings, there are a few things you can try:
- Correct the position – Babies have tender tummies that need some help. Some have digestive issues like reflux. With reflux, keeping the baby lying down all the time can make things worse. Try holding her upright while keeping her head in a safe position. You can also elevate the head of the crib or bassinet (by putting something underneath the mattress).
- Watch how you nurse – If your baby has reflux which is very likely if he or she is gasping for air during or after feedings, you want to keep them off their backs. Sit them up slightly as you nurse them to relieve the reflux symptoms.
- Keep baby upright after feeding – I know it is so nice to put a sleepy, just nursed baby back into the crib. But if she has reflux, you should hold her in your arms for 30 minutes to help her out. You can also wear her in your carrier to free up your arms.
Some recommend gripe water to help with reflux, colic, or gas. I’m not a huge fan because there are brands with alcohol and sugar. Plus, anything with peppermint can make things worse.
My breastfeeding coach, Vivien, always told me that babies should have nothing but breastmilk (or formula) until 6 months, when they can sit up independently, and then solids could be added to the diet.
Other reasons baby sounds gasping for air
The human body is a complex system, and your baby is still developing those systems outside the womb. Here are some other reasons you might hear your baby gasping. Some are more serious than others, but if you are worried, call the doctor!
Prematurely born babies more commonly gasp for air. Their respiratory systems are still developing. You may notice gasping, then heavy breathing, and normal breathing. As your baby gets bigger, this should work itself out. If your baby gasps for air and doesn’t breathe right after that, call 911 immediately.
If the baby makes a high-pitched gasping noise, this is known as laryngomalacia. It affects the tissues surrounding the vocal cords, making them softer than normal. This can make it more difficult for your baby to breathe.
You’ll notice squeaking and see the tissue in the neck moving in and out with every breath. The baby will also have a hard time putting on weight. It’s prevalent for preemies. Generally, this will work itself out, but you should take the baby to the doctor for confirmation and peace of mind.
Gas is the culprit when a baby is gasping for air while pooping. It might help to read my articles about gas and burping. It could be as simple as that!
- Upper respiratory infection
Upper respiratory infections like bronchitis or pneumonia can cause a baby to gasp. The bronchial tubes might be inflamed, or the lungs might be filled with liquid. If you think the baby might have either of these, take him to the doctor at once.
Unfortunately, asthma could be the reason your baby is gasping for air. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America says fast breathing, panting, wheezing, and trouble eating are just a few symptoms. Your pediatrician will need to diagnose the condition.
Get medical attention immediately if the baby’s lips or fingertips turn blue.
- Mega mucus
Mucus can be the culprit too. It can come from colds, allergies, and other illnesses. It may also be a sign of asthma. Mucus can make it difficult to breathe. If the baby has a cold or illness, you can use a humidifier to help loosen the goop in their passageways to relieve her. Take her for a checkup just to be sure too!
- Whooping cough
As it’s medically known, Pertussis can cause a baby to gasp for air when falling asleep suddenly. It can also happen when they are awake. Their cough has a specific whooping sound, congestion, fever, watery eyes, and vomiting.
There is a vaccine for whooping cough, but if your baby is too young for that vaccine on the schedule, she could potentially be exposed to it. If you suspect it’s pertussis, immediately take your baby to the doctor.
- Sleep apnea
We often think of sleep apnea as an adult thing. However, it can happen to babies, children, and teens too. Sleep apnea means that a person stops breathing in their sleep. There’s obstructive sleep apnea, which is by those tissues in the throat being too soft. Brainstem problems may also cause this.
If the baby is gasping for air while sleeping, it can be terrifying. You will want to have your doctor evaluate your baby to determine the cause. Breathing machines can be used during sleep to keep the baby safe. Your pediatrician will help you, so don’t worry!
And hopefully, you don’t do this…
I hope you don’t smoke. We all know what smoking can do, so I’ll spare you the lecture. However, smoking in the same room as your baby can lead to health issues. It increases the baby’s chances for asthma, makes ear infections more common, and can be why your baby gasps for air.
Yes, even if you step outside and smoke, that smoke clings to your clothes. You should change your clothes and avoid smoking in the same room as your baby. If it’s a caregiver, make sure they are aware of this so they don’t inadvertently cause harm to your baby.
How do you know if the baby is having trouble breathing?
Every parent worries about their baby. At night if either of my daughters were sound asleep, I’d worry. Are they still breathing? I’d creep in and put my hand on them to feel them. And I STILL do it now.
So how do you know if the baby is struggling with breathing? He or she will take more than 60 breaths per minute and seem to labor to breathe. Look for these signs:
- Grunting as the baby tries to open blocked airways
- Nostril flaring, which shows an increase in effort
- Visible muscle retractions in the chest underneath the ribs as well as neck that go deeper than usual
- Blueish lips, tongues, hands, and feet
- Major decrease in feeding intake
- Lower energy levels
- Fever which can indicate an illness
As there are several reasons for a baby to gasp for air, you must try your best to stay calm.
What to do if your baby is struggling to breathe
I get it…no one wants to be THAT parent that calls the doctor every time the wind blows. But when it comes to a baby gasping for air, you should err on the side of caution and call your pediatrician.
If you notice the signs I listed above, particularly with the bluishness and extreme labor in breathing, you should call emergency services. Don’t attempt to diagnose anything on your own.
If the baby gasped during breathing and then resumed eating normally and has ever since, it’s probably fine, but a phone call to your pediatrician will relieve your mind. Your doctor should also check for these other conditions that can cause a baby to gasp for air when you go in for your next checkup.
For trouble breathing when sleeping, I couldn’t wait to get that checkup, though. I’d immediately contact the pediatrician to ensure it’s not sleep apnea. If it’s an illness, there will usually be some treatment.
Parents of preemies may have to watch and worry a little longer but always keep in touch with the doctor in a clean line of communication just to be certain.
One last thing…
There is no such thing as worrying too much about your baby. You will worry about this little person and any other babies you have for the rest of your life. My dad tells me he still worries about me, and I’m a full-fledged adult, so there you go.
That doesn’t mean you need to wring your hands together and be anxious, though. However, it is important to know the signs of your baby gasping for air and when they are serious. Don’t delay calling your doctor even if you think you imagine things. It’s better to make sure it’s nothing worse.
Of course, if a baby is gasping for air after a massive crying fit, it is most likely from all the crying. Work on your calming techniques, and you should see an improvement soon. Good luck, Mama!
Leslie Berry lives with her husband and two young daughters in Los Altos, California, where she loves helping other moms get comfortable with motherhood and embracing the insanity with facts peppered with laughs.
She loves eating too much sushi, exercising, and jamming out on her Fender. Read more about Leslie here.