Breath holding is extremely common in young children and can happen as often as once a day. Often referred to as a spell, it involves your child (usually aged 6 months to 6 years) holding their breath when they’re upset, frightened, hurt or had a minor accident. They will cry, catch their breath, then “hold it” without breathing. It’s not something they do on purpose, more of a reaction and it typically only lasts 30-60 seconds.
Breath holding can be alarming and stressful to parents and anyone involved, but don’t panic; this spell is not harmful to your child and it’ll pass quickly. Try to remain calm and do not shake or force your child to breath; the spell will pass and they will continue to breathe regularly on their own in a matter of seconds.
Blue Spells and Pale Spells
There are two main types of breath holding that can occur in your child; blue or pale spells. While both only last a few seconds, they do have some main differences as outlined below:
Blue spells, or cyanotic breath holding, are the most common. Although uncomfortable to watch, blue spells do not require any treatment and no long-term damage is done. They can happen when your child has hurt themselves or has become upset or frightened and can be characterised as:
Crying or screaming
Can turn a pale blue colour (usually around their mouth)
In extreme cases, can lead to fainting
Pale or pallid spells are less common than blue spells and are caused by a slow heart rate. No treatment is needed for a pale spell and your child will resume normal breathing in seconds. These spells can be characterised as:
Opening of the mouth as if they’re going to cry but nothing comes out
Pale or faint lookingJerky arm/leg movements and possibly loss of control with their bowels
Sweating and tired when the spell passes
What to Do - During and After
This can be a frightening time but it will pass quickly! A few things you can do during a breath holding spell are:
Stay calm! This will pass soonLay your child comfortably on their side for the remainder of the spell
Don’t shake your baby, this will not promote breathing
Reassure others around you what is happening, how it will pass soon and it is not harmful to your child
After a spell, your child may be drowsy and seem disoriented; this is normal. There also may be some residual muscle twitching, although uncommon. Once they've recovered, reassure them that everything is okay and act normally. Don’t make a fuss or punish them.
Remember, breath holding is very common in young children and not harmful. Although distressing to watch, it will be over in a matter of seconds! If you notice your child having frequent spells (multiple in a day) or has a fit lasting longer than a few minutes, consult your doctor.
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