breath holding - Boston Moms Blog

One of my twins is a breath-holder. Breath-holding is what it sounds like — a child involuntarily holds his breath in response to a physical or emotional trigger. They sometimes start to turn a little blue-ish — or pass out, which is what happens with my son. The breath-holder usually starts breathing again pretty quickly, but enough time goes by to give you a good scare.

I didn’t know breath-holding spells even existed until it happened to my son. Last summer, when my little guy was about 11 months old, he had his first breath-holding spell. He was practicing standing in our kitchen but lost his balance and fell flat on his back, whacking his head. He let out a loud cry of pain, and my husband scooped him up. Our baby went quiet in a silent-scream kind of way, but it didn’t end like a normal silent cry. I realized it was going on too long and ran over to see him. His eyes were open and his face looked paralyzed in a cry. But he wasn’t making any noise or taking in a breath. And then he started to go limp.

It was absolutely terrifying.

I immediately called 911. In the time it took for the police to show up, followed by the fire department and EMTs, he took a big breath and was seemingly OK. The EMTs checked him out and decided he must have had the wind knocked out of him. He was acting like himself and showing no signs that anything had happened.

But when another similar episode happened shortly after, we took him to his pediatrician, who diagnosed breath-holding. Breath-holding spells have happened many more times in the past year, but now we know what it is. And we know he will start breathing again if we wait it out. Sometimes a breath-holding spell ends pretty quickly and feels like an extra long silent scream. But sometimes his eyes roll back, his lips turn blueish, and he starts to go limp before he breathes again.

It is alarming every single time.

My heart races while I watch him and calmly tell him it’s OK. He usually looks terrified, his eyes open and his face frozen like he knows his body isn’t doing what it should. Once he starts breathing again, I start breathing again. He usually needs a few minutes to cuddle and then he is back to doing whatever he was doing.

We’ve identified my son’s breath-holding trigger, which means we can attempt to stop it from happening or recognize when it is coming. Typically, kids hold their breath in response to a physical feeling or a very strong emotional feeling. My son’s breath-holding trigger is usually a hard bump to the head, but it can also be from feeling extreme pain (like when his sister bit his finger to the point of drawing blood).

Of course, he is my less coordinated kid, and he likes to climb all the things in a no-fear toddler way. I try to let my kids be kids, but if you see me at the playground I’m probably telling him to watch out and be careful way more than I’m telling his sister. I know I tend to hover near him if he’s climbing a new structure or being a little bit daring. And I hold my breath every time he falls, waiting to see if it was a hard enough bump to make him hold his breath.

Although I had never heard of breath-holding before experiencing it with my son, we have had friends and family tell us about their kids having breath-holding spells. I’m so thankful that while breath-holding is a scary thing for a child to do, he is expected to grow out of it. It doesn’t have any long-lasting effects and will hopefully be a thing of the past in a few years.

For more information about breath-holding spells, check out the Child Neurology FoundationWebMD, or KidsHealth