Noisy breathing babies: what’s normal, what’s not


To new parents, the term ‘sleeping like a baby’ can take on a completely new meaning. This is not just due to newborns being very wakeful but they can also be very loud, even when they are asleep.

A newborn breathes more rapidly than an adult. This is because they don’t have the lung capacity to hold a lot of oxygen so they need to breathe in and out more often. An adult takes about 18-20 breaths in a minute compared with a newborn, who breathes in and out around 40-60 times/minute.

A baby’s breathing is not consistently rhythmic. Newborns take lots of rapid, shallow breaths – almost like they are panting. Sometimes they take longer, slower breaths followed by shallower ones. Then they may pause for a couple of seconds and not take a breath at all. This is what is called “periodic breathing”. It is completely normal in the majority of healthy, well babies. With time and increasing maturity most babies outgrow this pattern of breathing.

In many cases, noisy breathing is caused by the sound of the air flowing over the saliva which pools at the back of the baby’s throat. Unlike adults, babies are not able to clear their throat, cough when they want to, or consciously control their own breathing.

Sometimes it is helpful to use normal saline nose drops. These liquefy the nasal secretions and help to clear mucous which may be obstructing the baby’s nostrils. However, before doing this, check with your baby’s doctor and make sure there is no medical cause for the noisy breathing.

Babies are noisy breathers because …

  • Their airways are small. This means they can’t breathe in a lot of air at the one time. They need to inhale and exhale more frequently than adults do.
  • A newborn has a very small nose. Their nares (nostrils) are very narrow.
  • Their nose can become blocked with mucous.
  • Babies breathe in and out through their nose.
  • If there is nasal congestion, this makes breathing noisier.
  • Excess saliva pools in the back of their throat.

My baby is a grunter

Some babies grunt and groan like they’ve really got something to complain about. Lots of times they will also sneeze, snore, hiccup and cough even in their sleep. For the observer, they can almost be as entertaining as they are noisy. But as long as the baby is healthy and thriving, feeding well and reaching their milestones, there is generally nothing to be concerned about.


Laryngomalacia is a condition where the tissues sitting above the larynx (the voice box), are not as firm as they could be.  Babies with Laryngomalacia have on and off, noisy breathing when they take a breath in. It is often more obvious when they are crying or feeding.

Usually larynomalacia is noticed within the first couple of weeks of life. Generally it settles by around 12-18 months of age when the floppy cartilage develops more tone. Laryngomalacia generally doesn’t need any specific treatment.    

When will my baby make less noise when they are breathing?

Generally by around six months of age, babies stop only nasal breathing. Like adults, they learn how to breathe in through their nose and out through their mouth.

Once your baby is closer to six months, their airways will also be a little larger and their swallowing ability has matured – you’ll probably find they won’t be as noisy.

When to take your baby to a doctor

  • If your baby stops breathing.
  • If your baby is limp or difficult to rouse.
  • If they are blue or a dusky colour.
  • If your baby is coughing or wheezing.
  • If your baby has an elevated temperature.
  • If your baby has signs of a “cold” or other signs of illness.
  • If you see the area above or below your baby’s rib cage being “sucked in” as they breathe. This can indicate they are using other muscles to get air in and out of their lungs.
  • If you are concerned or worried.

This article was written for Kidspot by Jane Barry from – child health nurse, midwife and parenting columnist.