Breath-Holding Spell: What to Do When Baby Stops Breathing While Crying

Breath-Holding Spell: What to Do When Baby Stops Breathing While Crying

Ever heard of a baby’s ‘breath-holding spell’(BHS)?

(No, this isn’t some form of witchcraft 🧙‍♀️… although, the medical reason behind it remains a mystery, so maybe it is. 🤷‍♀️)

It’s basically when your baby scares the s**t out of you by holding their breath for a minute or so. 🥲

And it’s referred to as a ‘spell’ because it typically only happens for a short amount of time, and they’ll usually return back to normal breathing quickly.

But, children who have BHS can’t control it, and have no ability to stop or start it.

But, why do they do it?

And is it normal?

Let’s go through it all together. 👇

In this article: 📝

  • What is a breath-holding spell?
  • What causes a breath-holding spell?
  • What to do when your baby stops breathing from crying ✅
  • What are the complications of breath-holding spells?

What is a breath-holding spell?

So, a breath-holding spell is when a child uncontrollably holds their breath for less than a minute.

This is usually caused by an emotional reaction, such as frustration, anger, pain, or shock.

In some cases, they might be crying beforehand, but in others, they might not (more on this below 👇).

In some cases, your baby may also pass out for up to a minute…

And, in extreme cases, it can cause the child to have a seizure.

(We know this can be really scary, so we’re hoping that some information around why it happens, and what to do when it does, can bring you some comfort. ❤️)

So, it might help to know that this is common in babies, especially in those aged 6 - 18 months.

And, although these spells are scary, they’re generally harmless.

What are the two types of breath-holding spells?

💙 Cyanotic breath-holding spell

The most common type, this is when the child’s face turns blue, and happens usually after a very big cry.

It’s also linked with the child feeling angry and frustrated beforehand.

🤍 Pallid breath-holding spell

This is when the child’s face turns white, and can happen if they’re in pain or they’ve been startled.

But, different from cyanotic, the child may not cry at all beforehand.

Although it’s scary, it might help to know that BHS doesn’t cause any long-term damage, or have any harmful effects on the brain.

What happens during breath-holding?

There are a few key symptoms to watch out for with BHS — your child might:

  • Turn pale, blue, or gray
  • Faint for 1 - 2 minutes
  • Open their mouth as if they’re going to cry, but no sound comes out
  • Cry, and then be silent while holding their breath
  • Be floppy, or stiff, or their body might jerk
  • Be sleepy or confused for a little while afterward

What’s the peak age for breath-holding spells to happen?

Breath-holding spells can happen in children from 6 months of age, to around 6 years old.

But they’re more common in babies who are 6 - 18 months of age.

They can also run in the family, so if you’ve experienced breath-holding spells before, that might be why your baby also does.

What causes a breath-holding spell?

Well, it’s all a bit unknown, really. 🤷‍♀️

These spells are thought to happen when a child experiences intense emotion (like pain, shock, anger, or frustration), but the actual medical reason why breath-holding spells happen is a bit of a mystery.

Some studies suggest that iron-deficiency anemia might have an important role to play in BHS.

It shows that iron supplementation appears to be effective in many patients who have a diagnosis of BHS, and allows them to have some control over these spells.

Breath-holding spells also only happen when the baby is awake, so can’t occur when they’re sleeping.

How common are breath-holding spells?

One study found that almost 5% of the pediatric population could develop BHS.

And, the most common type of spell is cyanotic breath-holding spells.

These account for around 85% of all BHS occurrences.

What to do when your baby stops breathing from crying ✅

Crying beforehand indicates that this is cyanotic BHS.

So, what do you do if your baby starts going through one of these spells?

First off, breathe.

This can be a really scary time. 😖

It can flood you with dread and panic, but your baby will return to normal breathing soon.

Next, lie the child down on their side (do not pick them up).

Stay close to them until the episode ends, and make sure they’re safe (e.g., that they can’t hit their head, arms, or legs on anything hard or sharp).

Once they’ve returned back to normal breathing, reassure them that everything is okay, and act as normal as possible. 🤗

And, although baby should go back to normal after the spell, it’s important to discuss what’s happened with your pediatrician.

You’ll need to dial 911 immediately if your baby:

  • Faints and can’t be woken up
  • Is stiff, shaking, or jerking (like a fit)
  • Has pale, blue, or gray lips, tongue, face, or skin

What not to do during a BHS

There are a few important ‘don’ts’ as well to be mindful of…

When your child is having a BHS:

  • Don’t shake them, or splash them with water
  • Don’t put anything in their mouth (including your fingers)
  • Don’t try to give them CPR, or mouth-to-mouth
  • Don’t scold them afterward — it’s not their fault, and they’re not doing it on purpose.

How do you stop breath-holding spells? 🚫

Well, you can’t, really.

You just need to ride the wave with baby, and be there for them when they resurface at the other end.

It’s a terrifying experience, but you can’t do much to stop it from happening. 🤷‍♀️

Some children may have them more than others, too — sometimes, several times a day, while others may have them only once in a year.

What are the complications of breath-holding spells?

Any serious complications of breath-holding spells are rare.

Generally, no long-term neurological or health issues have been linked to having breath-holding spells as a child.

Some suggest that children with pallid breathing spells might go on to develop vasovagal synscope.

This is when the child has a loss of consciousness to an emotional trigger (like the sight of blood, for example).

In some rare cases, sudden death has been reported.

But, this is a common condition affecting children across the globe, and these sorts of complications are rare.

So, hopefully you’re more clued up on breath-holding spells in babies, now.

But, we completely understand how traumatic and terrifying these episodes can be.

It can often help to talk to someone who’s been through it all before — and that’s exactly what our Community is here for.

Join in the conversation today. 🥜


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