Newborn care

Why is my noisy newborn grunting, snoring and whistling in their sleep?

Turns out, “sleeping like a baby” doesn't necessarily mean peace and quiet. Are all these grunts, snores and snuffles normal?

Do you remember the sound of that first delivery-room wail? Then there’s the first adorable little sneeze, that first successful burp, those sweet coos, and eventually the first giggle—this is the soundtrack of newborn life. But you may also hear some pretty unexpected noises coming from your baby, too.

Infants can make a cacophony of noises, confirms Rachel Ouellette, a Fredericton-based paediatrician. In fact, they can be obnoxiously loud with their gurgling, snoring, whistling, hiccuping, coughing, sneezing and grunting. Learning to breathe outside the womb can also cause a number of weird and wonderful sounds, which you’ll hear—sometimes all night long—if the baby is sleeping in a bassinet next to you. Most of the time, these sounds fall within the realm of normal (but you can consult with your primary healthcare provider if you’re worried).

Babies are nasal breathers, explains Ouellette, and their breathing rhythms can vary far more than adults. A newborn can take 30 to 40 breaths per minute while asleep, whereas most adults breathe 12 to 20 times per minute while resting. Don’t be too concerned if you hear several fast breaths and then a rest period for a few seconds before they start to breathe again; this is usually normal and most babies will grow out of it by about six months.

You might also hear snoring or whistling while your babe is dozing. “Intermittent whistling can be related to a newborn’s narrow nasal passage,” explains Ouellette, “but it’s more likely related to boogers.” In fact, most babies are born congested (they were submerged in fluid for nine months), so snorting, coughing and sneezing may help them to work out that mucus. Smaller nostrils can also be blamed for snoring; most babies will grow out of it.

Brittney Dolinger, a mom of two from Mississauga, Ont., was alarmed when her six-week-old son, Finn, started grunting in his sleep. She’d helped out with her mother’s home daycare for years and had never heard a baby make noises like that before. “I was nervous because I thought maybe he wasn’t breathing properly or that maybe he had something stuck in his throat. And I wondered if he had asthma or sleep apnea,” she says. She’d sit next to him while he slept to make sure that he was OK.

“Many babies grunt as they work through the digestion process and learn to pee, poop and pass gas,” says Ouellette. But grunting doesn’t necessarily equal constipation. “Even if you hear them straining, it means that they’re trying to figure out and strengthen the muscles needed to get the job done efficiently,” she adds.

Other sounds, such as lip smacking or sucking on hands or fingers, can actually be a hunger cue that precedes crying—a way for your babe to communicate that she’s ready to feed.

In most cases, if your baby is healthy, gaining weight and reaching milestones, there is no cause for concern. But there are some red flags to watch for: nostrils that flare as the baby breathes; a baby who is having trouble breathing or is breathing very rapidly; difficulty with feeding and not gaining weight; and crying inconsolably. Grunting can be a sign of a more serious heart or lung issue if your baby is rhythmically grunting with each breath; if there is discolouration in the face or lips; or if it’s an effort for your baby to take each breath. (Watch for what’s called retractions—the baby’s skin is pulling in around the bones in their chest, such as above the collarbones, under the breastbone, or between and under the ribs.) An alert and awake newborn should be taking 40 to 60 breaths per minute.

Finn was given the all clear by his doctor, but the grunting caused another issue: a serious lack of sleep for his parents. “Initially we were staying up with him to make sure he was breathing,” she says, “but even after we learned he was OK, I couldn’t fall into a deep sleep.” Dolinger and her husband split the nights so that each of them could catch a few winks.

Toronto doula Giselle Johnston says that your nighttime strategy all comes down to what works best for your family. Taking turns or shifts looking after the baby at night is one way, but if that’s not sustainable, try moving the bassinet farther away from the bed or using a sound machine to drown out the snuffles and grunts of your noisy sleeper. You could also hire a postpartum doula or a night nurse, if that’s an option for you.

The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends room sharing with your baby until they’re at least six months old, but this assumes your baby isn’t too big for the bassinet or that the full-sized crib fits in your bedroom. Both Johnston and Ouellette say if your baby’s noises are really affecting your sleep, it’s OK to move them into their own room and use an audio or video monitor. Just be sure you’re following all of the safe sleep guidelines (such as no bumpers, no blankets, no smoking in the house, and using a firm, flat crib mattress, with baby sleeping on their back). “I evicted both of my noisy babies from my room before six months,” says Ouellette. “It was very necessary for me to function.”

On the other hand, if you have a high-needs baby who nurses a lot or wants constant comforting, it might be easier to keep them in your room, or for you to sleep in the nursery so that you have fewer trips down the hallway at night. “It really depends on each family’s parenting style,” Johnston says.

Dolinger says that Finn is now six, and still hasn’t outgrown these noisy newborn sounds and grunts. “We still call him our little piggy,” she says.