• Your nighttime respiratory rate can offer crucial insights into your overall health and well-being. 
  • The average normal breathing rate while sleeping varies by age, and it’s highly individualized.
  • Tracking and monitoring your respiratory rate trends over time can help you detect abnormalities quickly. Oura makes it simple to do this.

Respiratory rate, or breathing rate, is the number of breaths you take per minute. Your waking and nighttime respiratory rates are both primary vital signs and key health indicators. An elevated or abnormally low respiratory rate usually means something is challenging your system.

It’s crucial to understand the various factors that affect your respiratory rate, including sleep. When you fall asleep, your breathing naturally changes — your body’s metabolic rate slows, and less oxygen is needed.

Your breathing rate while sleeping also varies depending on the sleep stage. During deep sleep, the rate is at its slowest. In REM sleep, characterized by increased brain activity and quick eye movement, respiratory rate increases and becomes more irregular. 

Member Tip: Using the Oura App, you can find your average respiratory rate in the Readiness Tab and in Trends. Oura estimates this rate by accurately measuring minute-by-minute changes in your nighttime heart rate. 

Learning more about your nighttime respiratory rate and monitoring changes can alert you to changes in your physical fitness, health, or hormone cycle.

READ MORE: What is the Relationship Between Heart Rate and Respiratory Rate? 

What Is a Normal Respiratory Rate During Sleep?

Average respiratory rates vary by age. Young children have higher rates, which progressively decrease as they get older and enter adulthood. 

Age Respiratory Rate Range (breaths/minute)
Birth to 6 months 30 to 60
6 months to 1 year 30 to 50
1 to 3 years 24 to 40
3 to 5 years 22 to 34
5 to 12 years 16 to 30
12 years and up 12 to 20

A typical nighttime respiratory rate for healthy adults is 12–20 breaths per minute. However, your respiratory rate is highly individualized and may change over time, so be sure to track and compare it to your own averages; avoid comparisons to those around you. 

Tracking your respiratory rate trends over time allows you to spot any abnormalities. Typically, changes in your average respiratory rates are quite small (within 1–2 breaths per minute). Changes beyond this can indicate an abnormally high respiratory rate (tachypnea) or an abnormally low one (bradypnea).

What Causes an Abnormal Breathing Rate While Sleeping?

Tachypnea is rapid breathing above 20 breaths per minute. It can be caused by factors such as:

  • Exertion: Exercise or other physical activity can cause an increase in respiratory rate.
  • Anxiety and stress: Rapid and irregular breathing patterns are associated with increased anxiety and stress.
  • Pain: Severe pain often results in shallow breathing (since deep breathing can aggravate pain), muscle tension, and anxiety, which can all cause rapid breathing. 
  • Fever: Fever increases respiration rate because the body needs more oxygen to regulate body temperature and support increased metabolic activity.
  • Lung conditions: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, chronic bronchitis, lung cancer, pneumonia, and other lung conditions often make breathing difficult, leading to a high breathing rate while sleeping.
  • Heart conditions: Heart conditions such as congestive heart failure and arrhythmia can affect the respiratory rate and lead to tachypnea during sleep.
  • Metabolic conditions: Metabolic conditions, such as diabetic ketoacidosis, a diabetes complication that develops when the body produces too little insulin and excess blood acids (ketones), can cause rapid breathing and a high respiratory rate.
  • Medications: Certain medications like corticosteroids and bronchodilators are associated with increased breathing rates during sleep.

Common tachypnea symptoms include sharp chest pain when inhaling, shortness of breath, dizziness, confusion, and pressure in the chest that worsens over time. On the other hand, bradypnea is typically defined as less than 12 breaths per minute. It can be caused by:

  • Sleep apnea: Obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep, can lead to a low breathing rate, as well as other health problems such as snoring, fatigue, daytime sleepiness, and high blood pressure.

    Member Tip: Oura members can use the Blood Oxygen Sensing (SpO2) feature to track how efficiently their bodies circulate and absorb oxygen, allowing them to detect any possible breathing disturbances during the night. Oxygen levels below 95% are a sign to seek medical attention.

    RELATED: 6 Sleep Apnea Myths, Debunked

  • Alcohol consumption: Alcohol can slow down respiratory rate, especially in large amounts.
  • Stress and anxiety: Long-term stress and anxiety can result in an abnormally low respiratory rate
  • Health conditions: A metabolic condition such as hyperthyroidism can affect your metabolism and breathing ability. Similarly, heart problems and head injuries can cause abnormally slow breathing.
  • Medications: Opioids and sedatives are examples of medications that can slow down respiratory rate.

In addition, hormones can cause respiratory rate variability, particularly in women. This is because respiratory rate trends correlate with menstrual cycles. Respiration is slower at the beginning of the cycle (follicular phase) and speeds up towards the end (luteal phase). 

Common bradypnea symptoms include fatigue and weakness, dizziness, shortness of breath, confusion, and chest pains. If you are concerned about your breathing rate, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider. They can help you to identify the underlying cause and develop a treatment plan to improve your sleep quality and overall health.

Tips For Improving Your Nighttime Respiratory Rate

In addition to seeing a doctor and treating any underlying causes of abnormal breathing, the following tips can help you improve your respiratory rate:

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Excess weight can put pressure on your airways and make it more difficult to breathe.
  • Avoid smoking and secondhand smoke. Smoking irritates the airways and can make it more difficult to breathe.
  • Avoid alcohol before bed. Alcohol can relax airways and throat muscles, leading to breathing problems during sleep.

    Member Tip: Oura members can use Tags to track how alcohol consumption before bed affects your sleep quality. Over time, you can visualize the impact using your Trends chart.
  • Create a relaxing bedtime routine. A relaxing bedtime routine can help you to wind down and prepare for sleep. For example, meditation and listening to sleep sounds can reduce stress and anxiety, resulting in a more stable breathing rate during sleep.

    Member Tip: Oura members can tap “Explore” in the Oura App to access guided meditation content and post-session biofeedback to gauge how well their bodies respond to the meditation.   
  • Sleep in a well-ventilated room. A well-ventilated room will help ensure that you have enough oxygen to breathe.
  • Use a humidifier. A humidifier can add moisture to the air, making breathing easier and reducing the risk of snoring.

Things to Keep in Mind

It’s essential to recognize that your respiratory rate and heart rate variability (HRV) are closely tied — your heart rate experiences fluctuations during your breathing cycle. 

Specifically, when you breathe more slowly and deeply, your HRV tends to increase. This is because slower, deeper breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” state. Conversely, quick and shallow breathing tends to decrease HRV. Faster, shallower breathing activates the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s “fight or flight” response.

In general, a higher HRV is associated with a healthier cardiovascular system and a lower risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. It’s also associated with better cognitive function, stress resilience, and sleep quality. Therefore, monitoring your long-term respiratory rate can reveal insights into your HRV and overall health.

RELATED: At 66, This Oura Member Doubled His HRV and Improved His Health — Here’s How