All motor behaviors require precise temporal coordination of different muscle groups. Breathing, for example, involves the sequential activation of numerous muscles hypothesized to be driven by a primary respiratory oscillator, the preBötzinger Complex, and at least one other as-yet unidentified rhythmogenic population. We tested the roles of Atoh1-, Phox2b-, and Dbx1-derived neurons (three groups that have known roles in respiration) in the generation and coordination of respiratory output. We found that Dbx1-derived neurons are necessary for all respiratory behaviors, whereas independent but coupled respiratory rhythms persist from at least three different motor pools after eliminating or silencing Phox2b- or Atoh1-expressing hindbrain neurons. Without Atoh1 neurons, however, the motor pools become temporally disorganized and coupling between independent respiratory oscillators decreases. We propose Atoh1 neurons tune the sequential activation of independent oscillators essential for the fine control of different muscles during breathing.DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.02265.001.