Breath Holding Spells. A breath holding spell is when a child holds their breath, usually after being angry, frustrated, startled, or in pain. Sometimes the breath holding leads to the child passing out. It can be frightening to watch a breath-holding spell, but they aren’t harmful and usually last less than a minute.
Breath holding is usually involuntary, and is caused by a slowing of the heart rate or changes in your child’s usual breathing patterns. Sometimes breath-holding spells are brought on by strong emotions such as anger, fear, pain or frustration.
What to do during breath-holding spells
Follow these tips to help your child through a breath-holding spell:
- Stay calm. The spell is likely to pass within a minute.
- Lay your child on their side and watch over them until the spell ends.
- Don’t put anything in your child’s mouth, not even your fingers to clear the airway. If your child starts having jerky movements, you can hold their head, arms or legs to prevent injury or move away items that could hurt them.
- Don’t shake your baby or child. This won’t stop the breath-holding and can cause injuries.
- If other children or adults are present, reassure them that it’s a harmless spell and will pass soon.
- Sometimes children might fall and hurt themselves during the spell. If you think this has happened, it’s best to have a doctor check your child.
- Once your child has recovered, don’t punish or reward them or make a big fuss.
See a GP if: your child has already been diagnosed with breath-holding and: has breath-holding episodes more often than before or the episodes seem worse.
How long can breath-holding spells last?
A breath-holding spell will last only one or two minutes from beginning (crying or sobbing) to end (waking from unconsciousness), although they often seem longer to parents who observe them.
Waiting spells are short spells of time during which a child stops breathing. They are commonly mistaken for seizures. Spells usually occur in an otherwise neurologically healthy toddler. The most common age for a spell is between 12 and 18 months old.
This reflex allows some children to hold their breath long enough to pass out. Spells do not happen on purpose. This happens in 5% of healthy children.
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