Dealing with a breath-holder
Witnessing your child hold her breath and possibly turn blue and pass out is a frightening experience for parents. What causes little children to do this? And what should parents do?
It’s frightening to watch – even worse if you’re the parent and may go through the following scenario on a daily basis. A toddler hurts herself or has a tantrum but instead of crying, just stops breathing. She may then hold her breath until she starts to go blue around the lips – or until she passes out.
Breath-holding is very common in toddlers, affecting about one in 20 children. It can happen after a child has a minor accident, a fright or gets upset. It often occurs as part of toddler tantrums although the spell is a reflex reaction to an unpleasant stimulus and not a deliberate behaviour on the child's part.
There are 2 main types: the most common one in which the child stops breathing and goes blue and may then go limp before starting to breathe again. The other is less common, when the child opens their mouth to cry but nothing comes out. They then go deathly pale and faint.
If your child is going to be a breath-holder, it usually starts around 18 months or earlier and may last up until they’re about 6 years old.
What to do during an episode
- Lie the child on their side and observe.
- Don't shake the child, put anything in the mouth, or splash water onto the child.
- Keep the arms, legs and head from hitting anything hard or sharp.
- Treat the child normally after the event.
- Do not punish or reward the behaviour.
Breath-holding spells resolve spontaneously soon after the child passes out, usually within 30 to 60 seconds, with the child catching their breath and starting to cry or scream. Rarely children will have real seizures as part of breath-holding spells, but these are brief and not harmful and there is no increased risk of the child later developing a seizure disorder. Occasionally the child may sustain injuries should they fall down during a breath-holding spell.
This article was written by Fiona Baker, former editor in chief of Mother & Baby, Pregnancy & Birth and Wondertime magazines for Kidspot, New Zealand's best resource for pregnancy and parenting.