EVERY new parent worries about their newborn from how much they are eating, sleeping, peeing and pooping to ensuring they hit developmental milestones. We also worry about how they breathe and how they sound. It’s a stressful time period and most aren’t running on tons of sleep themselves — so we’re more emotional baseline. Occasionally, a terrifying thing happens where your infant turns bright red, or even blue or pauses their breathing. They may arch in a funny way or get stiff in their arms or legs. We may wonder if something serious is going on. If your infant (under 12 months of age) has an episode where they have pauses in breathing for less than 1 minute, they turn blue and then recover to normal…chances are…it’s normal. Normal? Turning pale or blue doesn’t seem normal nor does having your baby get stiff, nor does a second where they pause their breathing, but it can be, and there’s a name for it: Brief Resolved Unexplained Event (BRUE).
No question we have to trust our instincts if we think something isn’t going well for our babies and I always suggest seeing your pediatrician or family physician or nurse practitioner if you worry about your infant’s health, for reassurance. No question! Go in, get reassurance and learn. Don’t ever feel bad if everything checks out — this is why your pediatric team is there for you and your family. However, when you do go in for an evaluation from a nurse practitioner or physician, even if your baby has unusual breathing at times, or tenses, or even has a change in color, you may not need a lot of testing. Sometimes it’s normal.
Some Information About Breathing Patterns In Infants:
- Periodic Breathing: Newborns breath less regularly than older infants, children or adults. This is in part because of their immature brain stem (the part our brain that regulates the drive to breathe). The majority of newborns experience some periodic breathing in first couple weeks of life and most infants don’t have periodic breathing after 4 or 5 months of age. The term “periodic breathing” captures behaviors where babies breathe rapidly for a few moments, then pause for a few, then breath rapidly again. Most of the time periodic breathing happens with pauses that last no more than 10 seconds. It can appear really unusual to a new parent or relative. The Academy of Pediatrics defines it this way: “Breathing is often irregular and may stop for 5 to 10 seconds—a condition called normal periodic breathing of infancy—then start again with a burst of rapid breathing at the rate of 50 to 60 breaths a minute for 10 to 15 seconds, followed by regular breathing until the cycle repeats itself. The baby’s skin color does not change with the pauses in breathing and there is no cause for concern.”
- Color Change: babies can change color with crying, eating, fatigue or movement. Most of the time parents notice that babies will get bright red or ruddy while other times parents worry their baby looks pale or even a bit blue. It’s true that color change can represent underlying heart or breathing problems so if ever sustained over 1-minute it needs to be evaluated promptly. However, color change in infants over 2 months of age that resolves within 1 minutes may not need any work-up after you check in with a clinician. Sometimes color change can come from things like gastroesophageal reflux, coughing or choking, too. If any concern about your baby’s color it’s worth checking in with the pediatrician for a physical exam. While in the office, a pediatrician will do a full physical exam and ask lots of questions, and they can also check a spot oximetry for oxygen levels (pulse oximetry is standardly obtained in first 24 hours after birth to check blood oxygen levels to screen for underlying heart problems), do a electrocardiogram (EKG), and have observation.
- Noises: babies make all sorts of terrifying sounds! Gagging sounds, choking, gurgling, sneezing, and coughing. Most of these during infancy fall in the range of typical and normal if they don’t interfere with eating, breathing, and sleep. Sneezing is fairly common in the first couple months, again because of immaturity of reflexes. Some parents worry about babies who spit up and sound like they can’t breathe and want to put babies on their tummies. No evidence that is recommended and to lower risk of SIDS, we always recommend babies are put on their back in bare crib for sleep.
When it comes to worry and medical work-ups, I think the toughest part about this term (BRUE) is the word “unexplained.” We, as parents (and as pediatricians!), want an explanation for everything, especially for something as scary as your baby turning blue, but your pediatrician might not always have an explanation. They will have a plan, though, for building trust and ensuring your baby is normal. I partnered with sleep expert Dr. Maida Chen in the podcast above and Dr. Joel Tieder in the KING5 news clip below to explain more about this odd phenomenon.
As a Reminder: Infants at low risk for health concerns in the event of Brief Resoled Unexplained Events (BRUE):
- Age >60 days
- Gestational age ≥32 weeks and post-conceptional age ≥45 week
- First BRUE
- No cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) required by trained medical provider
- No features in the history of concern (e.g., possible child abuse, family history of sudden unexplained death, toxic exposures)
- No worrisome physical exam findings (e.g., bruising, cardiac murmurs, organomegaly).