Apnea of Prematurity

What is apnea of prematurity?

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.

What causes apnea of prematurity?

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.

  • Bleeding or tissue damage in the brain
  • Respiratory disease
  • Infections
  • Gastrointestinal problems such as reflux (when the stomach contents move back up into the esophagus)
  • Too low or too high levels of chemicals in the body, such as glucose or calcium
  • Heart or blood vessel problems
  • Immature neurologic system
  • Stimulation of reflexes that can trigger apnea such as with feeding tubes or suctioning, or when a baby's neck is very flexed
  • Unstable temperature
  • Unknown

Who is affected by apnea of prematurity?

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.

What are the symptoms of 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:

  • Periods of absent breathing for 20 seconds or more
  • Apnea of prematurity beginning in the first week of life or later

Symptoms of the more serious forms of apnea of prematurity may include:

  • Longer periods of absent breathing
  • Apnea beginning right after birth or after the second week
  • Blue coloring
  • Severe decrease in heart rate(bradycardia)

The symptoms of apnea of prematurity may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your baby's physician for a diagnosis.

How is apnea of prematurity diagnosed?

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:

  • Physical examination
  • Blood tests (checking for blood counts, electrolyte levels and infection)
  • Measurement of the levels of oxygen in the baby's blood
  • X-ray (to check for problems in the lungs, heart, or gastrointestinal system)
  • Apnea study—monitoring breathing effort, heart rate and oxygenation


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:

  • Your baby's gestational age, overall health, and medical history
  • Extent of the condition
  • Your baby's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the condition
  • Opinion or preference

Treatment for apnea of prematurity may include:

  • Monitoring of breathing and heart rates
  • Medications
    • Caffeine or theophylline to stimulate the central nervous system
  • Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP)—a mechanical breathing machine that pushes a continuous flow of air or oxygen to the airways to help keep tiny air passages in the lungs open.

Apnea not due to prematurity may require other treatments.

Children's Team

Children's Team




Critical Care Medicine

With the only pediatric, cardiac, and neuro intensive care units in the immediate Washington, DC, area, Children’s National Health System is the region’s leading provider of critical care medicine for seriously ill and injured infants and children.

Infant Apnea/ BPD Program

When your baby has trouble breathing or has a form of apnea, which temporarily stops normal breathing, a home monitor allows for continuous monitoring of your baby’s breathing and heart.


Whether your infant arrived prematurely or has a critical illness, our team assists in coordinating every service you and your baby needs, including consultations, assessments, emergency treatments, and continuing care.

Invest in future cures for some of life's most devastating diseases

See other ways to give

Keep in touch with Children's National by signing up for our newsletters.

Sign up now

Erieon's Story

Patient story

"On her seventh birthday, a few of the nurses got together to sing to my daughter for her birthday. It brought tears to my eyes because they had became my support system, my family, and my friends."

Read More of Erieon's Story