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Although it's perfectly normal for everyone to have occasional pauses in breathing, newborns who don't take at least one breath in 20 seconds or more have a condition called apnea.
During an apnea spell:
Apnea is usually caused by immaturity in the area of the brain that controls the drive to breathe (the brain doesn't "remember" to take a breath), although illness also can be responsible. Almost all babies born at 30 weeks or less will have apnea, but apnea spells become less frequent as the premature infant gets closer to term (the baby's original due date at 39 weeks).
The health care team continuously monitors a baby that's at risk for apnea. Sticky pads on the baby's chest are attached to a monitor that detects the baby's heart rate and breathing, which lets the health care team detect and respond to apnea as it happens. The monitor also stores data about the baby's heart rate and breathing.
In the NICU, all premature babies are monitored for apnea spells. The first line of treatment for apnea is simply stimulating the baby to help him or her remember to breathe. This can mean rubbing the baby's back or tapping the feet. But if apnea happens often, a baby may need medicine (most commonly caffeine) and/or a special nasal device that blows a steady stream of air into the airways to keep them open.
Babies remain in the unit until they've been apnea-free for 48 hours. Some may go home with an apnea monitor and on caffeine so parents can continue to watch for the condition. Many babies will outgrow apnea by the time they're 10 weeks past their original due date.