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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.

Immediate action required: 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:

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.

Breath-holding episodes:

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

Do

  • 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

Don't

  • 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)

Non-urgent advice: 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.

Information:

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