When Your Child Has Breath-Holding Spells

Mother comforts little boy holding his breath.

Your child is having breath-holding spells. During a breath-holding spell, your child holds his or her breath for a while before briefly losing consciousness. Breath-holding spells often happen after a trauma or an emotional upset. They occur most often in children under age 3. Breath-holding spells can be scary for both parents and children. But they are not usually a serious problem. And they often stop by the time your child is 5 or 6 years old.

What causes breath-holding spells?

The exact cause of breath-holding spells is not known, but they may run in families. Breath-holding spells are involuntary. This means that your child is not holding his or her breath on purpose. They are often “triggered” by an upsetting event. Common triggers include:

  • Injections (shots)

  • Injury (such as a head bonk, scrape, or fall)

  • Strong emotions (such as stress, anger, or pain)

What are the symptoms of breath-holding spells?

Common symptoms of breath-holding spells include:

  • Not breathing (holding breath)

  • Turning blue or pale

  • Stiffness or limpness throughout your child’s body during the spell

  • Jerky movements of the arms or legs

  • Loss of consciousness

How are breath-holding spells diagnosed?

Breath-holding spells are usually easy to diagnose. To do this, the healthcare provider will examine your child and ask about your child’s medical history, health, and symptoms. Certain tests may be done to rule out problems.

How are breath-holding spells treated?

Even though breath-holding spells can be scary, they are rarely dangerous. To prevent them, you might be tempted to shield your child from too much excitement or strong emotion. But it’s important to treat your child normally and set appropriate boundaries. During a breath-holding spell:

  • Comfort your child by cradling him or her in your arms or on your lap.

  • If the spell lasts, lay your child down on his or her back. This helps blood flow to the head more easily.

  • Don’t perform CPR (including mouth-to-mouth breathing).

  • If your child was eating before a spell, don’t try to use your finger to sweep food out of his or her mouth. But you can pat your child on the back, tip your child forward, or lay your child on his or her side to prevent choking.

What are the long-term concerns?

The good news is that breath-holding spells usually go away after age 5. They won’t cause brain damage or other problems. And they don’t make your child more likely to have health problems later in life.

Call your child’s healthcare provider right away if your child:

  • Faints (passes out) during a breath-holding spell if fainting has not happened before

  • Has a seizure (shaking or jerking) during a breath-holding spell