Neonatal respiratory physiology

This chapter is not relevant to any specific Section from the 2023 CICM Primary Syllabus, because there is no specific entry for neonatal respiratory physiology in the Respiratory section. However, in the Important to note section of the syllabus, the examiners mention that trainees are expected to have " an understanding of normal physiology,  and physiology at the extremes of age, obesity, pregnancy (including foetal)...". The "including foetal" presumably extends to the neonatal range of ages, which is from 0 to 30 days by convention. This had become the topic of Question 6 from the first paper of 2020 and Question 7 from the first paper of 2013. Each time, the college wanted us to compare the neonatal respiratory system to that of the adult.

Most of the differences are anatomical, and so no attempt will be made to separate structure from function. Instead, the best classification would probably be one which focuses on broad domains of difference, describes each difference and explains its relevance.

Differences in Respiratory physiology of the Adult and the Neonate

Domain Differences in the neonate In the adult
  • Small mandible
  • Large tongue
  • Larger tonsils and adenoids
  • Superior laryngeal position
  • Soft, narrow, short trachea
  • Thus, intubation is more difficult
  • Intubation is easier
Airway resistance
  • Respiratory resistance is increased at birth: bronchi arre smaller and lung volumes are smaller
  •  low airway resistance
Lung volumes and spirometry variables
  • FRC is similar to adult
  • VT is similar to adult
  • Minute volume is increased
  • Resp rate is increased
  • ERV is reduced
  • Closing capacity is increased
  • Anatomical dead space is increased (3.0 ml/kg)
  • Normal anatomical dead space is 2.2 ml/kg
  • Lung compliance is decreased (less surfactant)
  • Chest wall compliance is increased (cartilaginous ribs)
  • Good lung compliance
  • Low chest wall compliance

Gas exchange

  • Increased shunt (10-25%, due to patent ductus arteriosus)
  • Foetal haemogloin = left shift of the OHDC (poor affinity for 2,3-DPG) 
  • Postatal increase in 2,3-DPG = right shift of the OHDC
  • Oxygen toxicity includes retinopathy
  • High oxygen-carrying capacity of blood because of higher Hb and haematocrit
  • Normally shunt should be minimal
  • Oxygen is relatively nontoxic
Control of respiration
  • Immature respiratory centre, rhythmogenesis and reflex responses:
  • Decreased response to hypercapnia
  • Parradoxuic resposne to hypoxia
  • Periodic apenoeas and cyclical oscillating respiratory rate 
  • Mature reflxes and rhythmogenesis
Respiratory enegetics
  • The total oxygen consumption of the neonate is increased (6-10ml/kg/min)
  • Work of breathing is increased
  • Ideal efficiency is at a resp rate between 30 and 50
  • Diaphragm is more susceptibel to fatigue (fewer Type 1 fibres)
  • Oxygen consumption is 3ml/kg/min
  • Max efficiency at resp rate 12-14

Davis & Mychaliska (2013) cover this subject to a depth which will please all but the most demanding reader. Unfortunately, Elsevier have their article under lock and key. Similarly, Neumann et al (2014) is excellent but paywalled by Wiley. The dumpster-diving freegan will have make do with LoMauro & Aliverti (2016), which is unfortunately (or fortunately?) a lot less detailed. 

Airway differences

The unique challenges of the neonatal and paediatric airway are already listed elsewhere. Here, in a brief summary to remind the reader, the main differences are:

  • Small mandible
  • Large tongue
  • Larger tonsils and adenoids
  • Superior laryngeal position
  • Soft, narrow, short trachea

The functional implication of these changes, as a completely separate issue to the problem of intubating the neonate, is the softness and floppiness of these structures. With very negative or very positive intrathoracic pressure, the soft airways will not resist collapse, and stridor may ensue.

    Airway resistance

    • Respiratory resistance is increased at birth. The main reason for this is the presence of residual fluid in the lung. As one might recall, lung volume is a major influence on airway resistance, and at birth the lungs are collapsed. Ergo, resistance is high until all the amniotic fluid is expelled.
    • Lower airway resistance is generally increased in infancy, mainly because the bronchi are smaller (as the whole organism is smaller), and because resistance is related to the fourth power of the radius, it is increased. 
    • The lower airways are also more compliant, which gives rise to dynamic collapse during forceful inspiration. 

    Anatomy, volumes and spirometry

    Though it is not referenced and comes from 

    • The ribs are horizontal and the diaphragm is flattened. This places all the respiratory muscles into positions of mechanical disadvantage. 
    • FRC is similar to the adult FRC, although it would be lower if the neonates did not employ various FRC-increasing manoeuvres (like autoPEEPing, as discussed below).
    • Tidal volume is unchanged.  Adult VT and neonatal VT are both around 6ml/kg at rest. However, in the neonate, the anatomical and physiological dead space is increased, which means more of their tidal volume is wasted. 
    • Minute volume is increased, mainly because of the increased respiratory rate. The normal healthy neonate will breathe comfortably at a rate of around 40. There are several reasons for why this is necessary:
      • There is more anatomical and physiological dead space
      • The tidal volume is limited by the increased chest wall compliance (i.e. with higher respiratory effort it will collapse - see below)
      • The tidal volume is limited by decreased lung compliance due to the lack of surfactant
    • Lung volumes are markedly different: these data come from god knows where, but the numbers appear legitimate and resemble those published in the Nurse Anaesthesia E-Book by Nagelhout et al (2010, the 4th ed):
      Respiratory Volumes in the Adult and Neonate
      Volume Adult volume (ml/kg) Neonate volume (ml/kg)
      Tidal volume 6 6
      Total lung capacity 86 63
      FRC 34 30
      Vital capacity 70 35
      Residual volume 16 23
      Closing capacity 23 35

      In the form of a diagram, it looks like this:
      difference in respiratory volumes between adults and neonates
    • RV is larger than in the adult, ERV is small, and FRC is very close to RV. The main reason for this is the increased chest wall compliance, i.e. the soft floppy chest wall is insufficiently rigid to maintain a large intrathoracic volume at the end of tidal expiration, and tends to collapse to a lower volume. Various "expiratory braking" techniques are employed by the neonate to increase intrathoracic expiratory pressure and defend this volume (see below).
    • Closing capacity is increased. Mansell et al (1972) found that of all age groups, teens had the lowest closing volume, and it was highest in neonates and the elderly. From the high neonatal value, it takes a long time to mature, and only decreases to equal the FRC at about the sixths year of life.
    • Pores of Kohn are immature. These collateral communications between alveoli do not form until closer to the end of the first year of life.
    • Large physiological dead space is usually mentioned by textbooks. Appparently, most of this is due to an increase in anatomical dead space.  Numa & Newth (1996) report that it starts at around 3.0 ml/kg of body weight in neonates, whereas among adults it is closer to 2.2 ml/kg. 
    • Large alveolar dead space is occasionally reported. Most studies which report large values,  eg. 0.96 ml/kg from Wenzel et al (1999) are guilty of using mechanically ventilated neonates, and so their findings may not be reflective of normal human babies. For the normal adult, alveolar dead space is expected to be zero. 

    Lung and chest wall compliance

    • Lung compliance is decreased. The main reason for this is an insufficiency of surfactant. Apparently, it takes some days to synthesise an appropriately large amount of it. Moreover, at birth, the lungs are full of fluid, and relatively large pressure swing (∼30 cmH2O) is required in the first few breaths of life, which only produces about 40 mL of tidal volume. The neonate autoPEEPs up to a positive pressure of 35 cm H2O with a closed epiglottis, and sustains this pressure for up to 30 seconds to recruit those waterlogged alveoli (Pas et al, 2008).
    • Lung compliance is difficult to compare to adults.  In order to compare adults and neonates, one has to use specific compliance (i.e. indexed to volume), otherwise the neonates would seem to have preposterously low lung compliance. The specific compliance is usually indexed to FRC, which in the neonate remains roughly proportional to the adult FRC (as a fraction of TLC). 
    • Chest wall compliance is increased.  At birth, the chest wall is three times more compliant than the lungs, and it takes the whole first year of life for them to achieve something closer to adult values. The main reason for this is the cartilaginousness (cartilaginicity?) of the neonatal ribs. They are made of cartilage, is what I am trying to say.  In fact the chest wall is so compliant that it may not be sufficiently rigid during deep inspiration. This sets a functional limit to the maximum tidal volume possible, when the respiratory effort is increased. Trying to inhale a larger tidal volume requires a greater negative intrathoracic pressure, which causes the soft neonatal chest wall to collapse, which decreases the tidal volume.  The upshot of this is the greater reliance on the respiratory rate in order to increase minute volume.
    • The compliant chest wall does not defend the FRC very well. As already mentioned, if it were not for various reflexive mechanisms which maintain a positive end-expiratory pressure, the FRC of the neonate would be lower.

    Gas exchange and oxygen-carrying capacity

    • Increased shunt is sometimes described in textbooks, which - they say - is 10% at birth; however there is often no reference for this value. Looking for its origins, one usually comes across studies which report a far larger value, mainly because at birth the ductus arteriosus is still patent, and up to 25% of pulmonary blood flow is diverted into the systemic circulation. Nelson et al (1962) reported that at least a quarter of the cardiac output was shunted in normal calm neonates, with the fraction increasing to two-thirds when they were distressed.
    • Increased total oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood is usually seen, which is largely the effect of increased haemoglobin and haematocrit. The neonate usually rocks a Hb of 190g/L or above, which gives a potential 250ml of oxygen per litre of blood at 100% saturation. 
    • Foetal haemoglobin produces a left-shift of the oxygen-haemoglobin dissociation curve, which increases the binding of oxygen but decreases its release to the tissues. This increased affinity takes about 4-6 months to return to normal values, as foetal haemoglobin is replaced with normal adult haemoglobin.
    • A post-natal increase in 2,3-DPG rapidly reverses this left shift and decreases the affinity of foetal haemoglobin for oxygen in the first 2-3 days of life (Davis & Mychaliska, 2013).
    • Pharmacodynamics of oxygen includes different toxicities as compared to adults; specifically the neonates are prone to retinopathy and bronchopulmonary dysplasia when they are exposed to high oxygen concentrations.

    Control of ventilation

    • Expiratory braking:  the breathing pattern shortly after delivery is designed to maximise alveolar recruitment.  The first breaths have a short inspiratory time and a prolonged expiratory time, with a sustained period of high positive airway pressure (Kosch et al, 1988).  By a reflexive mechanism, the diaphragm contracts following inspiration to delay the passive recoil of the lungs and chest wall, and the glottis adducts in order to resist outward airflow. 
    • The central respiratory control mechanisms are immature. Rigatto (1984) summarises the resulting peculiarities very well. In short: 
      • Ventilatory response to CO2  is blunted in magnitude, i.e. the increase in the minute volume is lower than what would normally be expected in the adult
      • Ventilatory response to CO2 is reversed in the presence of hypoxia (i.e. the highest ventilatory response is seen at the high O2 concentrations, which is the opposite of what happens in adults).
      • In the presence of hypoxia, neonates decrease their minute volume, again the opposite of what happens in adults.
      • Brainstem respiratory rhythmogenesis is immature: neonates may have a slowly oscillating respiratory rate and intermittent apnoeas

    Work of breathing and respiratory demand

    • The total oxygen consumption of the neonate is increased. A figure of around 6-10ml/kg is usually quoted in the textbooks; Davis & Mychaliska (2013) report an increase of 100-150% from what is seen during neonatal life.  This reflects an increased metabolic rate, and is in turn associated with increased CO2 production. Therefore the overall demand on the respiratory system is increased. Add to this the poor lung compliance and the floppy chest wall, and you will conclude that the work of breathing for the neonate must surely be increased.
    • Work of breathing is increased.  Because of all the abovementioned changes in resistance and compliance, it takes more effort to produce breaths, and the more (and deeper) breaths, the more the effort.  Therefore there is a point of compromise where the tidal volume is low enough and the respiratory rate is high enough that maximum efficiency is achieved. OpenAnaesthesia give a legitimate-sounding value of 37 breaths per minute, which appears to come from Cook et al (1957); though it appears that there is a broad range of respiratory rates over which the respiratory efficiency does not change overmuch (between 30 and 50 breaths per minute).
    • The diaphragm is more susceptible to fatigue. At birth, the diaphrag has fewer Type 1 muscle fibres (the slow endurance type of muscle fibres which increase the fatigue resistance of muscle). Thus, the diaphragm of neonates and preterm infants is susceptible to fatigue after prolonged "sprints". This has implications for respiratory failure and the weaning from mechanical ventilation.


    Davis, Ryan P., and George B. Mychaliska. "Neonatal pulmonary physiology." Seminars in pediatric surgery. Vol. 22. No. 4. WB Saunders, 2013.

    Neumann, Roland P., and Britta S. von Ungern‐Sternberg. "The neonatal lung–physiology and ventilation." Pediatric Anesthesia 24.1 (2014): 10-21.

    LoMauro, Antonella, and Andrea Aliverti. "Physiology masterclass: extremes of age: newborn and infancy." Breathe 12.1 (2016): 65-68.

    Kosch, PHILIP C., et al. "Posterior cricoarytenoid and diaphragm activities during tidal breathing in neonates." Journal of applied physiology 64.5 (1988): 1968-1978.

    Rigatto, H. "Control of ventilation in the newborn." Annual review of physiology 46.1 (1984): 661-674.

    Mansell, A., Ch Bryan, and H. Levison. "Airway closure in children.Journal of Applied Physiology 33.6 (1972): 711-714.

    Nelson, Nicholas M., et al. "Pulmonary function in the newborn infant: the alveolar-arterial oxygen gradient." Journal of Applied Physiology 18.3 (1963): 534-538.

    Cook, C. D., et al. "Studies of respiratory physiology in the newborn infant. III. Measurements of mechanics of respiration." The Journal of clinical investigation 36.3 (1957): 440-448.

    Numa, Andrew H., and C. J. Newth. "Anatomic dead space in infants and children." Journal of Applied Physiology 80.5 (1996): 1485-1489.

    Wenzel, U., R. R. Wauer, and G. Schmalisch. "Comparison of different methods for dead space measurements in ventilated newborns using CO 2-volume plot." Intensive care medicine 25.7 (1999): 705-713.