Breath-Holding Spells: What Parents Need to Know

thumbnail for this post

Breath-Holding Spells in Children


Breath-holding spells (BHS) are a common childhood phenomenon characterized by episodes of voluntary or involuntary breath-holding, often triggered by an emotional upset or frustration. These spells can range in severity, from simple breath-holding to more serious events involving cyanosis (bluish discoloration of the skin) and loss of consciousness. While typically benign, some BHS can be associated with underlying medical conditions that require further evaluation.

Types of Breath-Holding Spells

There are two main types of BHS:

  1. Cyanotic BHS: These are the most common type and are characterized by breath-holding followed by cyanosis. The child typically arches their back, stiffens their body, and turns blue.
  2. Pallid BHS: Less common than cyanotic BHS, these are characterized by breath-holding followed by a pale or grayish complexion. The child may also become limp and unresponsive.


The exact cause of BHS is not fully understood, but several factors are believed to contribute, including:

  1. Temperament: Children with strong-willed, impulsive personalities are more likely to experience BHS.
  2. Emotional Distress: Frustration, anger, or disappointment can trigger a BHS.
  3. Underlying Medical Conditions: In rare cases, BHS can be a symptom of an underlying medical condition, such as anemia, heart disease, or epilepsy.


The diagnosis of BHS is usually made based on the child’s symptoms and a physical examination. The doctor may order blood tests or an electrocardiogram (ECG) to rule out any underlying medical conditions.


Most BHS are benign and do not require specific treatment. However, parents and caregivers should:

  1. Stay Calm and Reassure the Child: It is important to remain calm during a BHS and reassure the child that they are okay.
  2. Avoid Punishment: Punishment will only increase the child’s frustration and make the BHS worse.
  3. Distract the Child: Try to distract the child with a toy or activity to divert their attention from the trigger.
  4. Contact a Healthcare Provider: If the BHS is severe, lasting longer than 1 minute, or associated with cyanosis or loss of consciousness, seek medical attention immediately.

Management and Prevention

To manage and prevent BHS, parents and caregivers can:

  1. Identify and Avoid Triggers: If possible, try to identify and avoid situations that trigger BHS in the child.
  2. Encourage Communication: Teach the child to express their feelings appropriately to avoid frustrations that lead to BHS.
  3. Provide a Positive Environment: Create a positive and supportive environment where the child feels safe and secure.
  4. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT can help children learn strategies to manage their emotions and respond to triggers in a healthy way.

When to Seek Medical Attention

It is important to seek medical attention for BHS if:

  1. The BHS are severe (lasting longer than 1 minute, involving cyanosis or loss of consciousness).
  2. The episodes are frequent (more than 2-3 per day).
  3. The child has any other symptoms, such as seizures, developmental delays, or neurological problems.


Most children with BHS will outgrow them by the age of 5 or 6 years. However, a small percentage may continue to experience episodes into adolescence or adulthood.


Breath-holding spells are common in children and are typically benign. However, it is important to be aware of the potential triggers and when to seek medical attention. By providing a supportive environment, identifying triggers, and using appropriate management strategies, parents and caregivers can help children with BHS cope and prevent future episodes.

A thumbnail image

Dysphonia Spastica: A Comprehensive Overview

Dysphonia Spastica: Exploring the Intricacies of a Complex Vocal Disorder …

A thumbnail image

Frostbite: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Frostbite: A Severe Cold Injury Introduction Frostbite is a severe cold injury …

A thumbnail image

Fulminating Hyperpyrexia: A Rare and Life-Threatening Condition

Fulminant Hyperpyrexia: An Overview Introduction Fulminant hyperpyrexia is a …