Apnoea of prematurity

Apnoea of prematurity

If a premature baby has apnoea of prematurity, it means they stop breathing at times for 15-20 seconds. 

Key points to remember

  • apnoea of prematurity is common in babies born at less than 35 weeks
  • babies with apnoea of prematurity stop breathing at times for 15-20 seconds
  • apnoea of prematurity happens because the part of the brain that controls your baby's breathing is not yet mature enough to allow non-stop breathing

What is apnoea of prematurity?

If a premature baby has apnoea of prematurity, it means they stop breathing at times for 15-20 seconds. The condition is common in babies born at less than 35 weeks. When your baby stops breathing, their heart rate usually drops down as well. A slow heart rate is called bradycardia. When this happens, your baby can become pale and blueish in colour.

What puts my baby at risk?

The more premature your baby is, the more common it is for your baby to have periods where they stop breathing.

Why does it happen?

Apnoea of prematurity happens because the part of the brain that controls your baby's breathing is not yet mature enough to allow non-stop breathing.

How often can it happen?

It is not uncommon for babies to stop breathing many times a day while they are still premature.

What is the treatment?

Your baby's healthcare team will regularly check your baby. Healthcare staff will record your baby's heart rate, their breathing (respiratory) rate and in some cases, oxygen levels in their blood (oxygen saturation). If your baby stops breathing often, the healthcare team may start giving your baby caffeine. Caffeine helps to regulate breathing. Your baby can have caffeine in one of the following ways:

  • by mouth
  • through a nasogastric tube into your baby's stomach (see Tube feeding)
  • through a small plastic tube in your baby's vein

If the monitor alarm rings and your baby has not started breathing again within 20 seconds, gently rub your baby's back, arms or legs. This will encourage breathing. A gentle lift of your baby's head may also help. Sometimes, healthcare staff will need to give your baby oxygen through a mask or a ventilation bag. Your baby's nurse will gently place the mask over your baby's face and pump the bag. This will provide breaths for your baby.

How long does it usually last?

Apnoea of prematurity usually stops, and your baby will usually start breathing regularly, as they develop. Apnoea of prematurity does not cause brain damage. Your baby's healthcare team will monitor your baby for a few days after stopping caffeine treatment. If your baby breathes regularly without pauses during this time, it is unlikely they will have apnoea of prematurity again. Monitoring in hospital can then stop.

The content on this page has been developed and approved by the Clinical Reference Group of the Newborn Clinical Network, Paediatric Society New Zealand.

This page last reviewed 15 December 2017.
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