A person’s respiratory rate is the number of breaths they take per minute. Like body temperature and heart rate, respiratory rate is a vital sign that can offer a window into a person’s overall health. This is true of both your waking and sleeping respiratory rates, as breathing significantly faster or slower than normal while you sleep can be due to a health condition.
Sleep also has effects on the respiratory rate of everyone, regardless of their health. When we sleep, we naturally begin to breathe differently than we do when we are awake. By learning more about how sleep interacts with the respiratory rate, it’s easier to recognize what is normal for your body and when there might be a problem.
Once we fall asleep, the pace at which we breathe is determined by our metabolic rate. Most people breathe more slowly when they are asleep, and breathing evens out and becomes less variable with each successive stage of sleep. However, research shows that we also breathe faster and more erratically during the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep stage.
The normal respiratory rate during sleep depends on age, with children having a faster rate than adults.
The normal respiratory rate of an adult at rest is 12 to 20 times per minute. In one study, the average sleep respiratory rate rate for people without sleep apnea was 15 to 16 times a minute.
Our respiratory rate at rest changes as we grow older. A range of 12 to 28 breaths per minute is normal for adults between 65 and 80 years old, while a range of 10 to 30 is normal in those over 80 years old.
Children breathe faster than adults, and their average respiratory rate at rest decreases with age.
In addition to their high respiratory rate, infants can also experience something called periodic breathing. An infant’s respiratory rate can vary dramatically during a periodic breathing episode. It may be very low, high, or briefly stop altogether. These episodes are considered normal and not a cause for concern in most children.
The simplest way of measuring someone’s respiratory rate is by counting how many times they breathe in a minute, usually by watching for the rise and fall of their chest. However, even experts can struggle to perform an accurate count. In medical settings, your respiratory rate might be monitored by a wearable device.
Although respiratory rate may appear to only measure the number of breaths per minute, it also serves to measure the health of bodily processes that are involved in breathing. Just four breaths over or under the average rate can predict poor medical outcomes in some people. Because of this sensitivity, respiratory rate is an important statistic for health professionals.
An abnormally low respiratory rate is called bradypnea. Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder that causes people’s breathing to slow and stop for brief periods while they are asleep. There are two major forms of this disorder, obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.
People may also experience a low respiratory rate while asleep for reasons unrelated to a sleep disorder. Other conditions that can cause bradypnea include:
Rapid shallow breathing is called tachypnea, while deep rapid breathing is usually referred to as hyperventilation. However, both terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Neither form of high respiratory rate is a common symptom of any sleep disorder, though tachypnea is sometimes seen in people with sleep apnea being treated with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine.
Other causes of an abnormally high respiratory rate include:
An abnormal respiratory rate is considered a symptom itself and may not cause any further symptoms. However, the low respiratory rate associated with sleep apnea can cause people to experience excessive daytime sleepiness, loud snoring, morning headaches, and a decrease in concentration. These symptoms usually respond well to sleep apnea treatments like CPAP therapy.
Most other causes of an abnormal respiratory rate tend to have their own symptoms, which may be acute or chronic.
Both low and high respiratory rates are often caused by conditions like heartburn or anxiety. However, they might also indicate that something is seriously wrong.
Experts recommend immediate medical attention if someone with a low respiratory rate:
Very rapid and shallow breathing is considered a medical emergency when not caused solely by anxiety. You should also contact emergency medical services if someone with a high respiratory rate develops:
If you notice that you have an abnormal respiratory rate, consult your doctor. They will be able to determine whether your breathing rate is cause for concern and discover any disorder that may be causing your symptoms.