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Breath-Holding Spells: Brief Version

What is a breath-holding spell?

A breath-holding spell is when your child holds his breath until he passes out. Breath-holding spells start 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 injured, angry, or scared.

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 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 Barton D. Schmitt, MD, author of “My Child Is Sick,” American Academy of Pediatrics Books.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2008-08-11
Last reviewed: 2012-05-14
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.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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