Breath-Holding Spells

Brief Version

What is a breath-holding spell?

Breath-holding spells begin at age 6 months to 2 years. These spells usually stop when a child is 4 or 5 years old. Breath-holding spells are not dangerous. They don't lead to any brain problems. Your child may hold his breath when he is suddenly injured, frustrated, angry, or frightened.

During a breath-holding spell:

  • Your child may make one or two cries and then hold his breath until he becomes blue around the lips and passes out.
  • Your child may stiffen out when he or she passes out.
  • Your child will breath normally again and become fully alert in less than 1 minute.

People have a reflex that causes them to breathe after they have been holding their breath. This reflex doesn't work well in some children and they pass out before taking a breath.

How can I take care of my child?

  • Treatment during breath-holding.

    These spells are harmless and always stop by themselves. During a spell, your child should lie flat. Lying down makes more blood go to the brain and may keep the muscles from jerking. Put a cold, wet washcloth on your child's forehead until he starts breathing again. Don't start mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or call a rescue squad (911)--it's not necessary.

  • Treatment after breath-holding.

    Give your child a quick hug and go about your business. A relaxed attitude is best. If your child had a temper tantrum because he wanted his way, don't give in after the spell. If your child has a lot of attacks, ask your doctor to check your child for anemia.

Call your child's doctor during office hours if:

  • More than one spell occurs each week.
  • The attacks change.
  • You have other concerns or questions.

CAUTION: Call a rescue squad (911) if your child stops breathing for more than 1 minute.

Written by B.D. Schmitt, M.D., author of "Your Child's Health," Bantam Books.
Published by McKesson Provider Technologies.
Last modified: 2006-02-23
Last reviewed: 2006-02-23
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright 2006 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved.