Children's Hospital Colorado

Is Your Child a Breath-Holder?

A bot holding a teddy bear

If your toddler holds their breath until they pass out, you know how scary these episodes can be. Barton D. Schmitt, MD, explains this condition in more detail.

What is a breath-holding spell?

A breath-holding spell is when your child holds their breath until they pass out. Breath-holding spells begin between the ages of 6 months and 2 years. They can be triggered by frustration, a fall or a frightening experience. During a breath-holding spell:

  • Your child may begin crying and then hold their breath until they become blue around the lips and pass out.
  • Your child may stiffen and even experience a few twitches or muscle jerks.
  • Your child will breathe normally again and become fully alert in less than one minute.

These spells are harmless and always stop by themselves. Time the length of a few episodes — using a watch with a second hand — so you can get a better understanding of how long they actually last. Children normally have these spells a few times per month.

What causes breath-holding spells?

An abnormal reflex allows 5% of children to hold their breath long enough to pass out; it is not deliberate. Holding their breath when frustrated and becoming bluish without passing out is such a common reaction in young infants that it is considered normal.

What happens to children who have breath-holding spells?

Children typically outgrow breath-holding spells by the time they are 4 or 5 years old. Breath-holding spells are not dangerous and don’t lead to epilepsy or brain damage.

How can I take care of my child during a breath-holding spell?

During a spell, do not hold your child upright. Instead, they should lie flat. This position will increase blood flow to their brain and may prevent muscle jerking. Put a cold, wet washcloth on your child’s forehead until they start breathing again. Also, be sure not to put anything in your child’s mouth because it could make them choke or vomit.

What can I do to ensure my child doesn’t get hurt during one of these spells?

The main injury risk during a breath-holding spell is a head injury. If your child starts to have an attack while standing near a hard surface, go to them quickly and help lower them to the floor.

What should I do after a breath-holding spell?

Give your child a hug and return to your normal routine. If you’re frightened, don’t let your child know it. Act relaxed and the two of you will be just fine.

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