Font Size

Apnea of Prematurity

Apnea of Prematurity

Apnea is a pause in breathing for 20 seconds or more. Premature infants younger than 32 to 34 weeks' gestational age commonly have apneic spells, usually while sleeping. During an apneic spell, an infant's blood oxygen level can drop (oxygen desaturation, or "desat"), which is sometimes followed by a drop in heart rate (bradycardia).

The cause of apnea of prematurity is poorly understood. It is known to be related to the infant's immature neurological, muscular, and respiratory development.

Until about 34 weeks' gestation, premature infants are electronically monitored for apnea and bradycardia spells, as well as for desaturation. Apnea spells generally stop around the time an infant is able to have all feedings by nipple, rather than tube. This is usually between 34 and 38 weeks, though it can take longer. Preemies born extremely early, between 24 and 28 weeks, are more likely to have apnea beyond their due dates. A few have apnea for several months. After apnea spells have stopped for a week or more, they usually do not recur.1

Severe apnea is usually treated with medicine, breathing support, or both. Common treatments include:



  1. Hansen TN, Corbet A (2005). Control of breathing. In HW Taeusch et al., eds., Avery's Diseases of the Newborn, 8th ed., pp. 616–633. Philadelphia: Elsevier Saunders.


ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerSarah Marshall, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerJohn Pope, MD - Pediatrics
Last RevisedApril 14, 2011

eMedicineHealth Medical Reference from Healthwise

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

To learn more visit

© 1995-2012 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.

Medical Dictionary