Some of you may have heard stories about stubborn or willful toddlers who hold their breath until they turn blue in the face. These might sound like amusing “terrible twos” tales, but they’re not funny to the parents of these toddlers.
Breath-holding spells can be terrifying for parents because kids hold their breath until they pass out. Most spells are an involuntary response to strong emotions – such as anger, fear or frustration – but these spells aren’t intentional. They’re an involuntary reflex, which means kids have no control over them.
“Breath-holding spells occur in about 5 percent of kids, and a positive family history of them is seen in 25 percent of cases,” said Dr. Emma Raizman, a pediatrician at Akron Children’s Hospital Pediatrics in Medina. “For some children they can occur daily, but for most others they occur occasionally when they are faced with a strong emotion.”
Although very disturbing to those who witness them, breath-holding spells aren’t harmful and pose no serious health risks. A spell typically lasts less than a minute before a child regains consciousness and resumes breathing normally.
These spells can happen in healthy children between 6 months and 6 years old, but are most common during the toddler years. In most cases, breath-holding spells can be predicted and even prevented once triggers are identified. After kids develop better coping skills, they usually outgrow them by age 5 or 6.
How to keep kids safe during a breath-holding spell
If your child has a breath-holding spell (stops breathing; turns blue, purple, or white in the face; and passes out for brief time), stay calm and:
- Check your child’s mouth for food or any object that could pose a choking hazard once your child regains consciousness.
- Roll your child over onto her side.
- Remove all sharp objects or furniture within reach in case your child has a seizure. If a seizure does occur, call 911 if it does not stop within a minute or your child doesn’t regain consciousness within a minute.
- Begin administering CPR if your child does not resume breathing and call 911.
“It’s important parents remain calm during spells because it will reassure your child once she regains consciousness,” said Dr. Raizman. “After the spell, comfort your child and don’t punish her for having one. Remember, it’s not a behavioral problem; it’s a reflex.”
If this is your child’s first breath-holding spell, seek medical care. Although breath-holding spells are not harmful, they can sometimes be a sign of an underlying medical condition – such as a seizure disorder, heart arrhythmia or iron deficiency anemia – and should be checked out.
Once underlying conditions can be ruled out, a doctor can help you determine what triggers a spell in your child, how to prevent future spells and how to deal with them if they do happen.
“Working on good, productive coping skills will help reduce the amount of breath-holding spells that occur,” said Dr. Raizman. “Also, consistent rules and boundaries, positive reinforcement for good behavior and making sure your child gets plenty of rest are all beneficial in helping to decrease the chance of more spells.”
With experience, courage and your doctor’s help, you can learn to cope with breath-holding spells while providing a safe and structured environment until your child finally outgrows them.