Because most premature babies have apnea, they're sent to the Intensive Care Nursery where they're attached to a monitor called a cardiorespiratory monitor. An alarm sounds if the monitor detects that your baby stops breathing for too long or if his or her heart rate drops. If the alarm sounds, a nurse immediately checks your baby for signs of apnea. False alarms are not uncommon.

If your baby does experience apnea and isn't breathing, a nurse will rub your baby's back, arms and legs to try to stimulate breathing. Your baby's head may also be turned or your baby may be placed on his or her stomach or back. If this stimulation does not work, a bag filled with oxygen will be placed over your baby's mouth. This is called mask-and-bag breathing.

In addition to monitoring, babies with apnea may also be treated with medications and respiratory support.


Several medications can help reduce spells of apnea by stimulating the part of your baby's brain that controls breathing. Aminophylline and theophylline are the most commonly used drugs. Caffeine may also be used.

Respiratory Support

Respiratory support may be used to help your baby start breathing again.

  • Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP): Developed in 1969 at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital by Dr. George Gregory, CPAP is a method for keeping a continuous positive pressure on the lung gases so that when a baby breathes out, the lung chambers will remain inflated. During this procedure, oxygen is delivered through little tubes that fit into your baby's nostrils.
  • Ventilator: Babies who suffer from severe, frequent spells of apnea may be put on a ventilator to help them breathe. A tube is placed through your baby's mouth into the windpipe. The ventilator blows air and oxygen through the tube and into the lungs.

Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital.

Related Information

UCSF Clinics & Centers

Critical Care

Intensive Care Nursery
1975 Fourth St., Third Floor
San Francisco, CA 94158
Phone: (415) 353-1565
Fax: (415) 353-1202

LIFE Clinic
1825 Fourth St., Fifth Floor
San Francisco, CA 94158
Phone: (415) 476-2538
Fax: (415) 476-2929