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Periodic breathing refers to the pattern that newborns exhibit when they breathe during sleep. While it is harmless and natural, first time parents sometimes find it quite worrisome.
What one observes about the very young is that in sleep, a newborn tends to maintain rapid and shallow breathing for a period of maybe 15-20 seconds, and then he pauses. The pause lasts just a few seconds - it seems like forever if the parents are watching - and then the breathing starts again.
Key to the diagnosis of this type of breathing is that the child shows no change of color - no blueness around the lips - and resumes normal shallow breathing without any parental intervention.
This phenomenon is simply a reflection of the baby's immature breathing control center in the brain. It is over-responsive to CO2 concentrations in the bloodstream. The shallow rapid breathing "blows off" or flushes the CO2 from the bloodstream, and the brain's automatic respiratory drive shuts down temporarily until the CO2 level rises again. Then the cycle repeats.
This phenomenon reminds us of the immature nature of newborn breathing regulation and serves as a good reminder why back sleeping is so strongly recommended for infants.
Periodic breathing is not to be confused with true apnea. If you are concerned about either topic, you should of course discuss it with your doctor.