Breath-holding spells

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Breath-holding in children can be scary but is usually harmless. Read on to learn more.

Key points

  • 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.
Last updated: January 6th 2014