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 health care provider 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:
No treatment is usually needed. But iron drops or pills may be given if the child has an iron deficiency.
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 4 to 8 years old.
Children who have a seizure during a breath holding spell are not at higher risk of having seizures otherwise.
Call your child's provider if:
Call 911 or your local emergency number if:
Reviewed By: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.