Breath-holding spells are brief periods when young children stop breathing for up to 1 minute. These spells often cause a child to faint (lose consciousness). They are usually not a behaviour the child does on purpose.
The most common type of breath-holding spell usually occurs in response to emotions, such as anger or frustration. These spells are caused by a change in your child's usual breathing pattern.
Another type of spell occurs in response to fear, pain, or injury, especially after an unexpected blow to the head. These spells are caused by a slowing of your child's heart rate.
Breath-holding spells can occur in children between 6 months and 6 years of age and are most common from 1 to 3 years of age. How often they happen varies a lot in different children. The spells are usually not serious, do not cause permanent damage or affect a child's future health, and gradually go away on their own over time.
In general, breath-holding spells cause a child to faint. A spell may sometimes cause the muscles to twitch or the body to stiffen. Your child will wake up on his or her own and start to breathe again normally.
Call 911 or emergency care right away if your child does not start breathing within 1 minute.
Symptoms of spells brought on by emotions like anger or frustration include:
Symptoms of spells brought on by fear, pain, or injury include:
Some children also have seizures during breath-holding spells. This does not mean they have a seizure disorder. Seizures are different from mild twitching, and they may cause a child to vomit or pass urine. They are more likely to occur in children who have long periods of breath-holding.
Home treatment usually is all that is needed for breath-holding spells. You can make breath-holding spells less likely by helping your child get plenty of rest, feel secure, and manage his or her frustration.
After a spell happens, reassure and comfort your child. Keep in mind that your child is not doing this on purpose. Make sure all your child's caregivers understand the cause of breath-holding spells and how to manage them.
Talk to your doctor if:
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Current as of: May 12, 2017
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
& Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & Louis Pellegrino, MD - Developmental Pediatrics
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