breath holding spells · neurology · pediatric neurologist

Breath Holding Spells – Frightening but Harmless

Imagine this scenario. Your one year old falls off a small chair onto the rug in the livingroom. He starts to cry. You pick him up and console him. You look away for a moment and then notice he has stopped crying. Oh good, he’s stopped crying, you think. You look back, about to tell him everything is fine, but then you notice his face is frozen in a crying expression, mouth wide open, lips turning blue, no sound coming out. You give him a gentle shake, call him name, “Come on love, cry, cry, CRY!”. He close his eyes and his little body goes limp in your arms. Your visting friend calls emergency services. You are in a panic and then the baby wakes up again, is limp, crying and seems tired.  Ten minutes later the ambulance team arrives. The one year old is back to normal and is telling you he is hungry. You have no idea what just happened, but you do not want a re-run. The ambulance team checks him out, says it was probably a reaction to the fall and tell you to keep a good eye on him in case he’s concussed. You feel terrible. If you’d kept a better eye on him he wouldn’t have fallen and none of this would have happened.

Four months later you are in the supermarket buying a carton of milk for the bedtime bottles. Your 16 month old and your 3 year old are with you. You have just come back from a business trip. Your husband is on a business trip.  You are flying to Ireland alone with the two children the next evening. You have an evening of packing ahead of you. The 16 month old wants you to buy biscuits. You say no. He opens his mouth the cry but no sound comes out. His lips go blue, his eyes are rolling back in his head. The check out lady calls an ambulance. The child wakes up. You feel foolish. If you’d just let him have the biscuits none of this would have happened.

So what did happen? My son suffered from so-called breath holding spells. After the supermarket incident the ambulance team took us to the hospital where my son proceeded to have two more attacks. Luckily the doctors were there to witness it. At that stage they didn’t make any diagnosis but kept us in for observation and performed several tests including an EEG the following day. Based on the results the pediatric neurologist diagnosed my son with breath holding spells. When I asked what we can do about that, I was told, in a nice way, there is nothing you can do. 

The general advice on breath holding spells is to ignore it, let it happen. What? What? How are you supposed to ignore it when your child literally goes blue in the face and faints? “The nurses say to blow into the child’s face but I don’t know if that really helps” the neurologist said. “Eventually he’ll grow out of it”. Right, we’ll just wait it out so, is that it? I thought to myself. That is what we had to do, frightening though it was. By the time he was two, the spells had passed and haven’t returned. 

The good news is that these spells don’t seem to have any lasting effects. Blowing in the child’s face does help. It startles the child and seems to snap them out of it, if you catch them in time.

Son Number Three, at the age of 8 months, has started these spells now, so it seems I have another few years of it ahead of me. I am calmer now since I know what is happening and that it will pass, but it still makes me a bit panicky when I see that crying face with no sound. Sometimes the sound of a crying baby is a much better thing than no sound at all.

Have you experienced this? What helped your child?

4 thoughts on “Breath Holding Spells – Frightening but Harmless

  1. Oh my goodness that sounds so scary, at least you know it'll pass and they grow out of it. When my daughter cries really badly she sometimes goes silent for a couple of seconds and seems to struggle to breath but she doesn't go blue and it passes quickly, this is already scary to me! I hope these spells go away soon.


  2. Thanks Carolyn. I'm hoping he'll grow out of it by the age of 2, like his brother did. Hopefully your daughter will grow out of hers too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.