What are breath-holding spells?
A breath-holding spell happens when a child stops breathing for a short time, from a few seconds to a couple of minutes. The spells can occur often in a single day or only now and then.
Children who experience breath-holding will usually have their first spell before they turn 18 months, although spells can sometimes start from as early as six months. The spells happen most often when a child is around two years of age and normally end when the child turns five or six.
It might seem that a child is holding their breath on purpose, but they actually cannot control this behaviour.
As a parent, you might find breath-holding scary to watch, but the spells are fairly harmless and usually do not do any long-term damage. The child having a breath-holding spell regains their normal colour, level of awareness and breathing pattern within minutes.
How can I tell when my child is having a breath-holding spell
Breath-holding spells usually happen after a child is suddenly startled or upset. They may occur with a moment of extreme crying.
Common steps in a breath-holding spell
- A brief, shrill cry
- Forced breathing out, followed by stopped breathing (apnea) and turning red
- Blue, purple or pale skin (also known as cyanosis)
- Fainting or loss of consciousness
- Jerky movements (short, "seizure-like" movements), only in extreme cases
Jerky movements during a breath-holding spell do not usually indicate a true seizure and do not cause any long-term harm. Children who shake with a breath-holding spell do not appear more likely to get a seizure-related disorder.
Types of breath-holding spells
Breath-holding spells fall into two categories:
Cyanotic breath-holding is the most common type of spell. It is usually triggered when a child cries after feeling angry, frustrated or frightened. Because the child stops breathing, their bodies receive less oxygen. This can lead to changes in the child’s heart rate.
Pallid breath-holding, which is less common, is triggered after a child experiences pain, for example after falling or hitting their head. This can lead to changes to the child’s nervous system, which causes the symptoms such as forced breathing or jerky movements.
It is common for your child to have a breath-holding spell with a temper tantrum. If your child has mild breath-holding spells and does not become faint, it is best to ignore the spell as you would ignore a temper tantrum, while making sure the child is safe.
How to help your child during a breath-holding spell
- Make sure your child is in a safe place where they will not fall or be hurt.
- After the spell, try to be calm. Avoid giving too much attention to the child, as this can reinforce the behaviours that led to the event.
- Discuss the event with your child's doctor. Your child may need a medical exam to make sure that they do not have any other health problems that could be related to the breath-holding spell, such as iron-deficiency anemia or an irregular heartbeat.
When to call 911
Call an ambulance if your child:
- stops breathing or loses consciousness
- has trouble breathing
- has jerky movements or a seizure for more than one minute.
- Breath-holding spells can start by 18 months and occur until age five or six. A child cannot control their breath-holding spells.
- Breath-holding episodes usually last from a few seconds to a couple of minutes. They most commonly occur when a child is suddenly frightened or upset, but they can also happen in response to pain.
- Common signs of a breath-holding spell include crying or gasping, followed by no breathing, pale or blue skin and fainting.
- Although breath-holding might look scary, the spells are fairly harmless and do not cause long-term damage. Children with breath-holding spells usually do not have an underlying illness.
- After a spell, it is best to treat your child like other children to avoid reinforcing the behaviour.
- Call 911 if your child has stopped breathing or has a seizure for more than one minute.