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:
- 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)
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.
Find out more:
- The Syncope Trust And Reflex anoxic Seizures (STARS) – reflex anoxic seizures
Page last reviewed: 26 November 2019
Next review due: 26 November 2022