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What to know about mouth breathing in babies

Your adorable sleeping baby is so sweet to watch, but if their mouth is open, look out. Mouth breathing can indicate health issues like sleep apnea you’ll want to bring up with your baby’s pediatrician.

There are a few potential causes of mouth breathing in babies and different ways to resolve each one. We’ll go over what’s normal, what’s not, and what to do about it. There may be no reason to worry, but get informed so you know if there is or not. Then you can take the next step so you and your baby can both sleep soundly.

Baby girl sleeping in a bed

What causes mouth breathing in babies?

There are a few different reasons a baby may breathe through their mouth while asleep. Some are temporary reasons that aren’t cause for alarm and others that you’ll want to follow up about with the pediatrician.

Babies don’t naturally breathe through their mouths while asleep. If there is an obstruction to a newborn baby’s nose, they would be more likely to wake up rather than switch to mouth breathing because of their facial anatomy at that stage of development.

First, if your baby is stuffed up in their nose with congestion from a cold or allergies, they won’t have another option but to breathe through their mouth until their nose opens back up. Usually, they’ll go right back to sleeping with a closed mouth once they’re able to breathe through their nose again, but sometimes mouth breathing becomes a habit after a cold.

Another reason is a condition called sleep apnea in which the upper airway is obstructed. Mouth breathing during sleep is one symptom of sleep apnea in addition to snoring pauses in breathing during sleep and restless sleep. While sleep apnea in adults usually causes them to be tired during the day and to gain weight, in children it more often causes them to have behavioral problems and to get enlarged tonsils or adenoids. The enlarged tonsils or adenoids may also be the cause of the sleep apnea. Risk factors for pediatric obstructive sleep apnea include obesity, Down syndrome, abnormalities in the skull or face, cerebral palsy, sickle cell disease, neuromuscular disease, history of low birth weight, and family history of obstructive sleep apnea.

Your baby may have also been born with a deviated septum, an abnormality in the cartilage and bone that separates their nostrils. This can lead to trouble breathing through the nose.

How can I stop my baby from mouth breathing while sleeping?

It depends on the cause of the mouth breathing. If it’s temporary congestion from a cold, you can use a cool-mist humidifier in their room overnight. You can also use a bulb syringe or NoseFrida to remove mucus from their nose before bedtime.

For a condition like sleep apnea or a deviated septum, you’ll need to follow up with your doctor for the next steps. For sleep apnea, the doctor may prescribe medication, a CPAP or BPAP machine, or the removal of the tonsils or adenoids. For a deviated septum, they might recommend surgery.

Is mouth breathing in babies something to worry about?

If it’s just for a few days because of congestion, mouth breathing shouldn’t be a problem. However, long-term overnight mouth breathing can cause many problems and should be corrected.

“Children who mouth breathe typically do not sleep well, causing them to be tired during the day,” dentist Dr. Yosh Jefferson says. Poor sleep may also affect growth, behavior, facial development, and dental development. They may get “long face syndrome” with a narrow jaw. It can even cause poor oxygen concentration in the bloodstream which can cause medical issues including high blood pressure, heart problems, and sleep apnea.

If your baby is habitually mouth breathing, bring it up with your pediatrician sooner rather than later. Not getting quality sleep can seriously hurt your baby’s development at this important stage of their life, not to mention the other potential effects mentioned above. Observe your baby while they sleep to see if there are other issues such as snoring or pauses so you can tell the doctor and they can best advise you on the next steps to determine a diagnosis.

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