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When should I seek care if my child is having trouble breathing?

When your child isn't breathing normally, it can be very scary. Many changes in breathing are normal and harmless, but others may require emergency care.

Newborns often breathe faster for a few seconds and then slow down breathing, especially when sleeping. This is normal and does not require treatment. If this type of breathing continues past the age of 6 months, talk to your pediatrician. Immediately seek emergency care for any of the following:
  • If your child is not breathing and is not responsive, begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and call 911.
  • If your child stops breathing for 15 seconds or more, and then starts again, visit the emergency room (ER) to make sure the underlying reason for the episode has been resolved.
Breath holding spells (involuntary breath holding occurring when the child is crying or upset) often happen between the age of 6 months and 6 years. If your child does this, you do not need to go to the ER unless it results in loss of consciousness or seizure. In that case, it is important to go to the pediatric ER to make sure there are no other reasons for this occurrence.

If your child has a hard time breathing or is experiencing abnormal behavior or actions, seek emergency care. The following warrant an immediate trip to the ER:
  • breathing faster than normal
  • breathing harder without exertion
  • chest and abdomen see-saw (one goes up while the other goes down)
  • bluish color to the lips or skin
  • persistent barking cough or wheezing
  • high-pitched squeaky sound in upper airway
  • placing weight on the hands in a tripod position while hyperextending the neck
If your child chokes and turns blue, but then returns to normal, still visit the pediatric ER to be sure there are no long-term consequences.
David C. Fiore, MD
Family Medicine
Take your child to the doctor or hospital right away if he or she is having trouble breathing. Difficulty breathing is a medical emergency. However, a child who is short of breath from exercise probably does not need to be seen by a doctor.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.