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Apnea is a term for the absence of breathing for more than 20 seconds. It can occur in full-term babies, but is more common in premature babies. The more premature the baby, the greater the chances that apnea will occur.
Apnea may be followed by bradycardia - a decreased heart rate. When breathing slows, the heart rate also slows. A common term for apnea with bradycardia is "As and Bs."
Apnea of prematurity may be due to a disturbance in the brain's breathing control center, called central apnea. With obstructive apnea, breathing stops because something is blocking the airway. Problems in other organs can also affect the breathing control center. Apnea of prematurity may not have an identifiable cause other than immaturity of the central nervous system. However, apnea of prematurity may have other causes. Some of these include:
Most babies who develop apnea are premature. It appears to be more common during sleep, especially during active sleep - a period when the baby has rapid eye movement (REM) while sleeping. About half of all premature babies have apnea of prematurity.
Apnea of prematurity may be different from another breathing pattern that can occur in both premature and full term newborns, called periodic breathing, a pattern of short pauses followed by a burst of faster breaths. While periodic breathing is a normal type of breathing in babies, apnea of prematurity can be a symptom of a more serious condition.
The following are the most common symptoms of apnea of prematurity. However, each baby may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
Symptoms of the more serious forms of apnea of prematurity may include:
The symptoms of apnea of prematurity may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your baby's physician for a diagnosis.
It is important to find out if the apnea is due primarily to prematurity or if it is caused by another problem. Your baby's physician will check many of your baby's body systems to find out what might be causing the apnea. Diagnostic procedures may include:
When apnea occurs, stimulation of the baby by rubbing the skin or patting can help the baby begin breathing again. However, any problems that might be causing the apnea need to be identified and treated. Many premature babies will "outgrow" apnea of prematurity by the time they reach 36 weeks gestation.
Specific treatment for apnea of prematurity will be determined by your baby's physician based on:
Treatment for apnea of prematurity may include:
Apnea not due to prematurity may require other treatments.