Baby breathing


During the first few weeks and months of life, baby’s respiratory system is described as "immature". The way babies breathe is still different from adult breathing and will change. Their respiratory rate is faster than that of older children and their breathing is not regular, especially while they are sleeping. Indeed, this is often a source of concern for new parents. It is important to remember that this type of breathing - called "periodic breathing" - is quite normal. In the absence of any other signs, there is no reason to worry.


The nose plays a central role in baby's breathing. Newborn babies are "obligate nasal breathers" - i.e. they only know how to breathe through their noses. Thanks to this characteristic and the specificities of their anatomy, they can breathe while feeding, with no risk of suffocation or choking as the air and milk paths are completely separate. As they develop, they gradually lose this ability and learn how to breathe through their mouths too.


Newborn babies have quite flat noses with small nostrils. As a result of this specific anatomy, obstruction of the nasal passages is relatively common in babies. What's more, they cannot get rid of nasal secretions by blowing their nose and the prolonged stagnation of these secretions can exacerbate nasal obstruction. This is usually mild, with babies breathing normally again after a few days. However, more severe obstruction can be problematic since babies breathe through their noses. The resulting breathing difficulties can make it hard for babies to feed properly and lead to poorer quality sleep. All the ingredients required for a grumpy baby!
But baby's nose is much more than a simple air inlet. As it travels through the nasal passages, the air is warmed up, filtered and moistened before it reaches the lungs. Inhaled air is carefully cleaned to eliminate potentially dangerous dust, pollutants and microorganisms.


The nasal passages are lined with a mucous membrane (or mucosa) that carries out this cleaning operation. This nasal mucosa consists of several layers of cells with specific functions.
Some of these cells produce mucus, which traps the particles to be eliminated, like a glue. In addition to this mechanical action, the mucosa contains antimicrobial substances to help neutralise pathogens.
The cells located at the interface with the air are equipped with cilia, which beat in harmony. These act as a sort of conveyor belt, removing the mucus loaded with impurities to the stomach. The term used to describe the combination of these two phenomena is "mucociliary clearance". This is an essential component in our body's defences against potentially pathogenic inhaled bacteria and viruses. It is particularly important in babies because their immune system is immature, making them more vulnerable to infections. Defective mucociliary clearance can quickly lead to nasal obstruction, congestion and infection because microorganisms remain in contact with the mucosa.
The noses of babies are naturally colonised with all sorts of microorganisms. Their exact role is not known but they are thought to help the baby's immune system mature. The balance is a very fragile one and any disruption in it can lead to infection. Since the nose is connected to the sinuses, the ear and the rest of the respiratory tract, an infection can spread and cause complications such as ear infections, bronchitis and bronchiolitis.