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Laryngomalacia

What Is Laryngomalacia?

Laryngomalacia is a common cause of noisy breathing in infants. It happens when a baby's larynx (or voice box) is soft and floppy. When the baby takes a breath, the part of the larynx above the vocal cords falls in and temporarily blocks the baby's airway.

Laryngomalacia (luh-ring-oh-muh-LAY-shuh) usually gets better on its own by the time a baby is 1 year old.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Laryngomalacia?

Babies with laryngomalacia make a harsh, squeaky sound when breathing in. This sound, called stridor, can start as soon as the baby is born or, more often, in the first few weeks after birth. Symptoms usually get worse over several months.

Most babies with laryngomalacia do not have trouble breathing or feeding, even though their breathing is noisy. Breathing usually gets noisier when the baby is crying, feeding, sleeping, lying down, or has an upper respiratory infection.

Most babies with the condition have mild symptoms. A baby whose symptoms are more serious might have:

  • trouble breathing (look for tugging in at neck or stomach)
  • feeding problems
  • poor weight gain
  • breathing pauses (apnea)
  • blue skin or lip color (cyanosis)

Call the doctor right away if your baby has these symptoms or breathing suddenly gets worse.

Babies with laryngomalacia often have gastroesophageal reflux (GER). This happens when food and acid go back up into the esophagus. If stomach acid reaches the voice box, symptoms may get worse. Formulas or medicines to help with reflux may help with breathing symptoms.

What Causes Laryngomalacia?

Doctors don't know what causes laryngomalacia, but it may have something to do with how the voice box formed before the baby was born. The muscles supporting the voice box may be weak or don't coordinate well with breathing. Gastroesophageal reflux may also play a role.

How Is Laryngomalacia Diagnosed?

Doctors often suspect laryngomalacia at birth or soon after based on the baby's symptoms and an exam. To confirm the diagnosis, a pediatric ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist will do a procedure called flexible laryngoscopy. To do this, the doctor passes a thin tube through the baby's nose or mouth to look at the airway and vocal cords in the voice box.

The doctor may check oxygen levels and order other tests to check for swallowing problems or GER. The baby's good weight gain and growth are very important.

How Is Laryngomalacia Treated?

Most of the time, laryngomalacia gets better on its own, usually by a baby's first birthday. Doctors will do regular exams to check the baby's breathing and weight. Because most babies also have GER, doctors usually prescribe anti-reflux medicine.

A baby who has severe breathing problems or poor growth may need a surgery called supraglottoplasty (soo-pruh-GLOT-oh-plass-tee). Doctors do this procedure through the baby's mouth to tighten the floppy tissue above the voice box. This will improve the baby's feeding and breathing.

What Else Should I Know?

Noisy breathing and other laryngomalacia symptoms usually get worse over several months, then start to improve after 3–6 months. Symptoms clear up completely in most kids. Occasionally, an older child with a history of laryngomalacia may have noisy breathing while exercising, during a viral infection, or when sleeping.

Reviewed by: Steven M. Andreoli, MD
Date Reviewed: 07-10-2019

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