Apnea of Prematurity

What is Apnea of Prematurity?

The definition of apnea is an absence of breathing for more than 20 seconds. Apnea occurs in newborns- especially ones born premature. In fact, the more premature the baby, the greater the chances for apnea of prematurity.

This is because in premature babies, the part of the central nervous system controlling breathing has not matured enough to allow non-stop breathing. The large bursts of breathing followed by periods of stopped or shallow breathing, is called apnea of prematurity (AOP). About 50% of pre-mature babies have apnea of prematurity.

Apnea of Prematurity Cause

The breathing control center of the brain called the central apnea. A disturbance or obstruction in this area may cause this breathing disorder. It may be the only cause. However, other factors can impact apnea of prematurity:

  • Infections
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Heart or blood pressure problems
  • Immature neurologic system
  • Unstable temperature
  • Respiratory disease

Apnea of Prematurity Symptom

Each baby may experience the cessation of breathing associated with apnea of prematurity differently, but the most common symptoms are:

  • Absence of breathing for 20 seconds or more
  • Apnea of prematurity beginning in the first week of life or later
  • Blue coloring
  • Decrease in heart rate

Longer periods of breathing cessation may occur in more serious forms of this condition.

Apnea of Prematurity Diagnosis

Your pediatrician will discover whether or not the apnea relates to the prematurity or if it’s caused by something else. Diagnostic procedures could include:

  • Physical exam
  • Blood test (blood counts, electrolyte levels, and infection measurements)
  • X-ray (lungs, heart and gastrointestinal system)
  • Apnea study (apnea monitor of heart rate, oxygenation and breathing effort)

Apnea of Prematurity Treatment

When cessation of breathing occurs, stimulating the baby by rubbing or patting the skin can help the baby begin breathing again. However, make sure any problems that might be causing the apnea get diagnosed and treated.

Also, many premature babies will work themselves out of apnea of prematurity by the time they reach 36 weeks gestation. Treatment of apnea of prematurity could include monitoring of breathing and heart rates, medications and the installation of a CPAP (a mechanical breathing machine that pushes a continuous air flow through the airways to keep the air passages in the lungs open).

Periodic Breathing

Don’t confuse AOP with periodic breathing. Periodic breathing is marked by a few second pause in breathing followed by several rapid and shallow breaths. Although it can be scary, periodic breathing typically causes no other newborn concerns.