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Quick Facts

Apnea of Prematurity

(Apnea in a Premature Baby)


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Nov 2020| Content last modified Nov 2020
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What is apnea of prematurity?

"Apnea" means not breathing. "Prematurity" is when a baby is born too early. Apnea of prematurity is when a premature baby stops breathing for short periods. These pauses in breathing last 20 seconds or more and happen over and over.

  • Apnea of prematurity usually happens when the part of your baby’s brain that controls breathing isn't fully developed

  • About 1 in 4 premature babies get it

  • The apnea happens less often over weeks and months as your baby's brain develops

  • Restart breathing by gently touching your baby

  • Sometimes doctors use caffeine, or a CPAP machine or ventilator, to help with breathing

What causes apnea of prematurity?

Causes of apnea of prematurity include:

  • The part of your baby’s brain that controls breathing isn't fully developed

  • Your premature baby’s throat or airway is temporarily blocked because of weak tongue muscles or bending forward at the neck

These problems go away as your baby gets older and the brain and muscles develop.

What are the symptoms of apnea of prematurity?

Symptoms include:

  • Pauses in your baby’s breathing that last 20 seconds or more

  • Bluish or pale skin

How can doctors tell if my baby has apnea of prematurity?

You and your doctors can see the breathing pauses. Your baby may also wear a monitor that sets off an alarm if they stop breathing.

Doctors may do tests to be sure the apnea isn't caused by another health problem. They may do:

How do doctors treat apnea of prematurity?

Doctors treat any problems causing the apnea.

During a breathing pause, doctors will have you gently touch your baby to help restart breathing.

If your baby's apnea happens a lot:

  • Your baby may need to be in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit)

  • Doctors may give your baby caffeine, which stimulates breathing

  • Your baby may need a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine or ventilator to help with breathing

Just like other babies, babies with apnea of prematurity should sleep on their back and not their tummy. Your doctor will check to make sure your baby can safely ride in a car seat.

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