Are you concerned when you hear your baby wheezing? You’re not alone. “Wheezing is very common in infants,” says Dr. Stanley J. Szefler, a pediatrician and the head of pediatric clinical pharmacology at National Jewish Health in Denver. “Almost one in three children has a wheezing episode at some time in early childhood.”
The good news: A new study published in Pediatric Allergy and Immunology has identified consistent risk factors for wheezing in infants — which means there are steps you can take to help prevent it.
Remember when you were a kid and you’d blow up a balloon, then squeeze the opening shut and let air out little by little to make funny noises? Think of that balloon as your baby’s lungs. Your baby’s airway is smaller in diameter than an adult’s, and it becomes even narrower when he has a cold. “The airway wall thickens and increases the resistance of air being moved in and out of the lungs,” explains Szefler. “The wheezing is the sound that you hear when he’s having trouble pushing air in and out of that narrowed passageway.”
Is It Asthma?
It’s true that wheezing is a classic asthma symptom. But don’t assume your baby suffers from asthma, which affects nearly 10 percent of children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even a run-of-the-mill cold can cause wheezing sounds, and let’s face it: Your kid is a walking sniffle machine. His immune system hasn’t yet built up the antibodies necessary to fight off common viruses. Many infants who wheeze grow out of it as their immune system grows stronger and the airways get larger, so doctors advise against diagnosing children under age 4 with asthma.
However, keep in mind that even though wheezing does not necessarily indicate asthma, a baby who wheezes frequently is at higher risk for developing the condition. “About 50 percent of children who wheeze in early childhood will go on to have asthma,” says Szefler.
Researchers have identified three things you do take to keep your baby’s airways clear:
- Don’t smoke while you’re pregnant. In the Pediatric Allergy and Immunology study, smoking during pregnancy was linked to a 48 percent increased risk of recurrent wheezing in babies. “Some data suggests that maternal smoking may interfere with lung development. In fact, lung function is reduced in infants whose mother smoked in pregnancy,” says study author Dr. Luis Garcia-Marcos, professor of pediatrics and director of the Institute of Respiratory Health at the University of Murcia in Spain.
- Breast-feed. Other research has found that breast-feeding protects against various health conditions, including ear infections, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), asthma and diabetes. “Breast-feeding for three or more months was associated with a 20 percent decreased risk of recurrent wheezing compared to those who were breast-fed for a shorter period of time or not at all,” says Garcia-Marcos.
- Don’t send your child to day care too young. The study found that children who were in day care during the first year of life were 2.7 times more likely to experience recurrent wheezing. “Attending nursery school increases the chances of respiratory infections, which can trigger wheezing,” says Garcia-Marcos. The researchers also discovered that babies who suffered a cold in the first three months of life were about three times more likely than other babies to develop recurrent wheezing.
Don’t panic if you notice your baby is wheezing. If he has a cold, it may be just a one-time episode. If the wheezing happens more than once and in the absence of a respiratory infection, then talk to your child’s pediatrician about an action plan. “The doctor may prescribe a medication … to prevent and/or relieve wheezing episodes,” says Szefler. Although the drugs prescribed are commonly used to treat asthma, doctors sometimes use them to help wheezing symptoms in young children, even before they’ve been diagnosed.