Some children have breath holding spells. This is an involuntary stop in breathing that is not in the child’s control.
Babies as young as 2 months old and up to 2 years old can start having breath holding spells. Some children have severe spells.
Children can have breath holding spells when they are responding to:
Breath holding spells are more common in children with:
Breath holding spells most often occur when a child becomes suddenly upset or surprised. The child makes a short gasp, exhales and stops breathing. The child's nervous system slows the heart rate or breathing for a short amount of time. Breath holding spells are not thought to be a willful act of defiance, even though they often occur with temper tantrums. Symptoms can include:
Normal breathing starts again after a brief period of unconsciousness. The child's color improves with the first breath. This may occur several times per day or only on rare occasions.
The doctor or nurse will perform a physical exam and ask questions about the child's medical history and symptoms.
Blood tests may be done to check for an iron deficiency.
Other tests that may be done include:
Breath holding can be a frightening experience for parents. If your child has been diagnosed with breath holding spells, take the following steps:
Most children outgrow breath holding spells by the time they are 6 - 8 years old.
Children who have a seizure during a breath holding spell are not at more risk of getting a seizure disorder.
Call your health care provider if you think your child is having breath holding spells.
Call your health care provider if your child's breath holding spells are getting worse or happening more often.
Call 911 or your local emergency number if:
Walter HJ, DeMaso DR. Age-specific behavioral disturbances. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 27.1.
Updated by: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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