boy upset on his bed

Breath-Holding Spells 101: Why does my child hold his breath and pass out?

Nichole Parenting fun 2 Comments

I’ve been told that breath-holding spells are common, except I’ve never known anyone personally with a child that has them. I’ve never met a daycare provider that has experienced it or a nurse that is super comfortable with it. If your child did or does this, please leave a comment below. I’d love to chat with you!

What is a breath-holding spell (BHS)?

If Tommy, my 1-year-old son, bumps his head lightly on the side of the couch, or I walk out of the room to go grab something upstairs, or he gets taken out of the high chair when he doesn’t want to, he might suffer from a breath-holding spell.

My son experiences cyanotic breath-holding spells. It starts with Tommy getting upset about something in particular. He becomes stone-faced as if in a frozen state and holds his breath. He might take a deep breath or scream out before holding it in. After that, it appears as if the airway becomes blocked. He checks out. His eyes are usually wide and body is always stiff with an arched back. He shakes a bit as if he is having a small seizure, which has been called reflex anoxic seizures.

“When there is not enough blood going to the brain, the deep part of the brain or brainstem triggers the reflexive stiffening and jerking,” according to the Child Neurology Foundation.

Yeah, that’s not scary at all.

As he keeps holding his breath, Tommy turns a hint of grey. Some children turn white. While turning colors and looking a little dead-ish (I know that’s a bit blunt), we place him on his side and wait for him to come back around. I’d like to say we are super calm at this time, but not exactly. I always worry that he will not start breathing again.

We sit with Tommy and encourage him to breathe by smacking the bottom of his feet and patting his bottom a bit. About 45-ish seconds later – I’ve never really timed it – he takes his first breath. Then he starts to come around. But he’s usually very discombobulated, upset and lethargic for a while after a spell. Sometimes he needs a nap. Sleeping after a spell is apparently OK, but super nerve-racking for the parents.

What to do if your child suffers from breath-holding spells?

  • Talk to your child’s doctor
  • Consider having child’s doctor run tests on him or her to rule out anything else
  • Read articles about it (like this one!)
  • Talk with other people that have been through it
  • Have a plan for when a BHS happens
  • Inform others around you about BHS, it’s a good chance they will think something is very wrong
  • Don’t get down on yourself about your parenting style and how you are handling this
  • Do what will make you feel comfortable
  • Do what will keep your child safe

Do worried parents reinforce this behavior?

This is where it gets a little bumpy for me. Imagine your child doing this several times a day. That’s how often it used to be for Tommy. Then, understand how scary it is to see your child not breathe and turn grey. Next, remember that after a BHS he is pretty upset for a while. All around it’s pretty miserable for everyone. So I try to avoid it at all costs. I mean, who really wants to go through this with their child while they are topless in a YMCA locker room? Not me. But I have.

If I can avoid a spell, I try to. That might mean that I give in and don’t run upstairs for a phone charger until I know he won’t flip out. It might also mean that I sneak out of the house when he can’t see me leave, which doesn’t always work – ask our babysitter.

It can be a battle in our home sometimes because my husband wants me to just leave immediately no matter what state Tommy is in. Sometimes I linger to make sure he is OK first. Some might think this makes it worse. This could be true. On the flip side, the other day I left abruptly and Tommy held his breath, did not pass out but threw up a few times instead.

Who knows! I don’t know exactly what to do. My goal is to recognize the triggers and try to avoid them at all costs, without creating a spoiled monster. Doctors say that breath-holding spells are not voluntary at first, but can become a learned behavior after a while.

One study indicates that breath-holding spells can “act as an easy marker for difficult temperamental traits, which gives an early opportunity to shape their difficult behavior.” If you are a parent of a child that suffers from breath-holding spells, consider reading this medical case study:

What should you do during and after a BHS?

In a perfect world, one should try to recognize the triggers, avoid them without giving in and give no extra attention while and after the spell is happening. Of course, you must make sure your child is safe. Lay them on their side, make sure they breath again and let them work through it.

Should you blow in their face?

Many people will tell you to blow in your child’s face in order to get them to breathe again. Blowing in my son’s face does not and has not worked for us. This only makes Tommy more shocked, which makes him hold his breath longer. The best way to avoid a spell is to try to distract or steal his attention as soon as you see the cue that it might be happening. It obviously does not always work, especially when you can’t do whatever it is they want you to.

How common is a child that suffers from breath-holding spells?

I have heard that it’s pretty common. I believe that they are hereditary, but could not find an article to confirm. Both of my children have suffered or suffer from breath holding spells. My daughter had them until she was almost 3 years of age. Her last spell was very traumatic because she did not start breathing in a reasonable amount of time so we gave her CPR. Having to do this is uncommon. Talk to your doctor about this for sure. My husband is CPR certified and I was at that time. Natalee started breathing again after CPR and we did go to Children’s Hospital in an ambulance afterword. After that, she never had another BHS.

My son started having breath-holding spells at about four weeks old and still has them.

I also suffered from them frequently when I was a child. My parents told me about it when I was younger. They didn’t prepare me for this though. But who could?

In conclusion, I hope this article helps at least one person. I hope one person out there can relate or feel relief knowing that someone else is going through the same thing at the same time. It goes back to having a newborn and wanting someone there to support you that understands.

Thank you for reading.

A PERSONAL NOTE: There are much worse things that parents have to go through with their children than breath-holding spells. My purpose for writing this post is not to have anyone feel sorry for us or to make anyone feel like it’s the worse thing in the world. It is not. I want this to help people understand. I want this to help someone else who experiences it, too. Hang in there, parents. You have my love and support. Also, a special thank you to those in my life that have helped us and our children get through these spells. You are amazing!

This post was written while drinking decaffeinated coffee. Sometimes it’s good not to drink regular coffee after 6pm. Who knew?

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Comments 2

  1. Nichole – I love that you are sharing parenting with your blog followers. It is very brave of you to “put yourself out there.” Raising children is not easy. It’s work!
    Just 2 weeks ago, John Rosemond wrote in his weekly (Tuesdays, I think) column about this very subject. Please try to find it online in back issues of the Omaha World-Herald. I don’t want to try to summarize it from my quick reading..
    Then, I refer you to the John Rosemond book(s) because I think they are common sense. I was brought up the old-fashioned way and was on the cusp of the new child psychology of the 1960’s when raising my children. Thus, I know both ways of child rearing. I would visit with you about Rosemond and the new child rearing psychology if you want. In the meanwhile, continue to blog and be the great person that you are!

    1. Post

      Thank you! I will look this up. And yes, I was a little nervous about this one and “putting myself out there” with this topic. It’s a hard one. But I keep thinking that maybe it will help someone else, too. It’s a bit of therapy for my to write these things down and send it out into the universe. Thanks again for the comment.

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