Breath Holding Spells


Does your child hold their breath when scolded all of a sudden?          

 Do u notice your baby turning pale and blue followed by fainting episode?              

Your child may be suffering from a behavioural condition called BREATH HOLDING SPELLS.

Breath holding spells is the most common behavioral disorder seen today; characterized by sudden stoppage of breathing in children with brief loss of consciousness or a fainting episode. This condition is known to occur as early as 6 months to 6 years of age, affecting   1 in 20 children of both sexes.

An emotional factor like fear, anger, frustration or a temper tantrum is what commonly precipitates the episode. It lasts for a few seconds and child returns back to normal.

The exact cause as to why these spells occur is still unknown. Such spells are involuntary and the child have no control over them. Some theories have correlated the probable cause as dysregulation in the central nervous system leading to abnormality in the reflexes which makes the child breathless and unconscious. No genetic predisposition has been proven so far. Breath holding spells can seem very overwhelming and create a panic among parents during each episode; however, it is very self-limiting and subsides on its own within a few seconds with no long-term effects on the child’s physical health. This illness can also be an indication of an underlying behavioral issue which needs to be identified and corrected.

How to Identify this condition in your toddler?

Suspect a problem if your child suffers from any of the following mentioned below:

  • Sudden holding of breath causing difficulty in breathing
  • Child cries vigorously and then holds their breath
  • Child becomes pale and listless all of a sudden when scolded
  • Cyanosis – skin turning blue for a few seconds and then becomes normal
  • Unconsciousness or fainting episodes
  • Episode is always preceded by emotions like anger, fear, anxiety.
  • Children with emotional and psychological issues like – temper tantrums, fears and phobias, rage, those unable to express themselves are more prone to suffer from breath holding spells.
  • Sudden fainting episodes occurring 3 to 4 times /day if severe or 1 to 2/week
  • Family history of similar episodes. Either a parent or a sibling may have had a similar experience in the past.

  Dealing with the behavioural disorder:

Breath holding spells are mild behavioral problems which recover on its own as the child grows up. As panic and over whelming the situation looks; it is not a serious condition for parents to worry. However, the duration of the episode and the frequency of occurrences may suggest otherwise. Parents need to get their facts cleared with their doctor regarding the illness and work out a better way to help their children through this ordeal. Prime focus of prevention should be on the triggering factors which cause the spell to occur involuntarily.

 What to do during the episode:

  • Avoid splashing cold water, or trying to awaken the child during the episode. It usually lasts for  few seconds and child regains consciousness soon.
  • Breath holding spells occur involuntarily without your child knowing, hence do not scold or confront your child about the episode that has occurred.
  • Do not pinch, stimulate or hit the child to distract the child and prevent the spell from occurring.
  • Avoid over protecting your child or providing too much attention. As a parent, breath holding spells may worry you, but over protecting your child and keeping a constant watch will only make the child more uncomfortable.
  • Avoid any kind of environmental situation which would emotionally affect your child and hence trigger the spell.
  • If the episode lasts longer than a few minutes or the condition worsens, rush to a nearest hospital/clinic and seek medical help immediately.
  • This condition can also mimic a congenital heart disease or a seizure disorder. Talk to your pediatrician about the episodes and get a through medical evaluation done.

 Approaching the problem:

  • Try to identify the important factor which triggers your child’s breath holding spell.
  • If your child shows tantrums, try to avoid situations which precipitate them and handle them with care.
  • Inform the school authorities about your child’s condition as spells can occur while playing or in the classroom.
  • Sometimes a small punishment or scolding can affect a sensitive child; such children should be tackled diligently by teachers.
  • Spend quality time with your child and allow them to interact more with you every day. This will help your child express how they feel more with words.
  • Adopt small techniques which help in modifying your child’s behavior and using positive reinforcements if they show improvement – for e.g. praising your child for a homework he did, or a craft or drawing class he took etc.
  • Discipline and decorum are essential, but learn more about your child’s reactions to them and avoid reinforcing actions which affect his behavior and emotions

Parents need to understand the emotional issues their children may be going through unknowingly which is affecting them this way as they are unable to express themselves. Caring and protecting your child and letting them know you are there to help them go through any hurdles will automatically make the child comfortable and allow them to express themselves better.

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