Breath-holding in babies and children
Breath-holding is when a baby or child stops breathing for up to 1 minute and may faint. It can happen when a child is frightened, upset, angry, or has a sudden shock or pain. It's usually harmless but can be scary for parents, particularly when it happens for the first time.
Call 999 for an ambulance if your child:
- faints and cannot be woken up
- is shaking or jerking because of a fit
- is blue or grey
These could be symptoms of breath-holding, but could also be related to other, more serious conditions. If a doctor has not previously told you it's breath-holding, it's important to get it checked immediately.
What happens during breath-holding
During breath-holding, your child may:
- cry and then be silent while holding their breath
- open their mouth as if going to cry but make no sound
- turn blue or grey
- be floppy or stiff, or their body may jerk
- faint for 1 or 2 minutes
Your child may be sleepy or confused for a while afterwards.
Breath-holding is usually harmless
Although breath-holding can be scary for parents, it's usually harmless and your child should grow out of it by the age of 4 or 5.
- usually last for less than 1 minute (if the child faints, they'll usually regain consciousness within 1 or 2 minutes)
- are not epileptic seizures
Your child is not doing it on purpose and cannot control what happens when they have a breath-holding episode.
What to do when a child has a breath-holding episode
stay calm – it should pass in less than 1 minute
lie the child on their side – do not pick them up
stay with them until the episode ends
make sure they cannot hit their head, arms or legs on anything
reassure them and ensure they get plenty of rest afterwards
do not shake your child or splash them with water
do not put anything in their mouth (including your fingers)
do not give them mouth-to-mouth or CPR
do not tell them off (they're not doing it deliberately)
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
- is stiff or shakes for longer than a minute and takes a while to recover
- has breath-holding episodes that are affecting everyday life
The GP will try to find out if there's a more serious underlying condition. They may suggest an ECG to check your child's heart rhythm.
Treatments for breath-holding
There's no specific treatment for breath-holding. It should eventually stop by the time your child is 4 or 5 years old.
Medicines are rarely used to treat breath-holding.
Breath-holding is sometimes related to iron deficiency anaemia.
Your child's blood iron levels may be checked. They may need iron supplements if their iron levels are low.
Causes of breath-holding
Breath-holding is usually triggered by a sudden shock or pain, or strong emotions like fear, upset or anger.
There are 2 types of breath-holding:
- blue breath-holding spells – this is the most common type of breath-holding and happens when a child's breathing pattern changes
- reflex anoxic seizures – this type of breath-holding happens when a child's heart rate slows down