Background. Raised respiratory rate is a useful sign to diagnose lower respiratory infections in childhood. However, the normal range for respiratory rate has not been defined in a proper, large sample.

Objective. To assess the respiratory rate in a large number of infants and young children in order to construct percentile curves by age; to determine the repeatability of the assessment using a stethoscope and compare it with observation.

Methods. Respiratory rate was recorded for 1 minute with a stethoscope in 618 infants and children, aged 15 days to 3 years old, without respiratory infections or any other severe disease when awake and calm and when asleep. In 50 subjects we compared respiratory rate taken 30 to 60 minutes apart to assess repeatability, and in 50 others we compared simultaneous counts obtained by stethoscope versus observation.

Results. Repeatability was good as the standard deviation of differences was 2.5 breaths/minute in awake and 1.7 breaths/minute in asleep children. Respiratory rate obtained with a stethoscope was systematically higher than that obtained by observation (mean difference 2.6 breaths/minute in awake and 1.8 breaths/minute in asleep children; P = .015 and P < .001, respectively). A decrease in respiratory rate with age was seen for both states, and it was faster in the first few months of life when also a greater dispersion of values was observed. A second degree polynomial curve accurately fitted the data. Reference percentile values were developed from these data.

Conclusions. The repeatability of respiratory rate measured with a stethoscope was good. Percentile curves would be particularly helpful in the first months of life when the decline in respiratory rate is very rapid and prevents to use cut off values for defining "normality."

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