Few toddler behaviors are quite as terrifying as breath holding, and for obvious reasons: all living things need oxygen. Which is why as their lips turn blue, their eyes roll into the back of their head, and they pass out, you hover over them wondering whether to try CPR or call an ambulance.
We know it looks -- and sounds -- bad ... but a child holding their breath is actually not as awful as you might think.
"Breath-holding spells can be extremely frightening to parents," admits Deena Blanchard, MD, a pediatrician at Premier Pediatrics NY. Yet they are surprisingly common, Dr. Blanchard says, occurring in kids from 6 months to 6 years.
They're most common during the so-called terrible twos, and the frequency runs the gamut among kids. It may happen once in a blue moon or near daily. Odder still, this behavior often runs in families (so if your tyke is doing it, your mom probably endured it, too. Talk about karmic payback!).
"They typically occur as a child starts to cry," explains Dr. Blanchard. "It's often thought of as a silent cry, meaning the child is crying but no sound is coming out."
And no, this is not an attempt by your toddler to manipulate you. "It is important for parents to remember that these spells are a reflex and are not done on purpose by the child," Dr. Blanchard continues.
There are actually two types of breath-holding spells. The more common one is known as "cyanotic" breath-holding spells, where your child will turn blue and pass out -- typically in response to anger, pain, shock, or fright. The second (and less common) type of breath-holding spells are "pallid" breath-holding spells, where the child will go pale and limp in response to their heart rate slowing down -- typically in response to pain.
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Whatever the cause, the good news is that breath-holding spells don't cause lasting damage. At worst, your child will pass out, at which point he will start breathing again, regaining consciousness in about one minute (and in the off-chance he doesn't, call 911). But in most cases, "breath-holding spells do not typically require treatment and resolve with time," says Dr. Blanchard. Just make sure your child is in a safe place where he can't fall or injure himself, and try to remain calm after he wakes up.
Although there's rarely cause for alarm, it is a good idea to call your doctor and discuss a breath-holding incident. "In some children, breath-holding spells can be related to iron deficiency anemia," says Dr. Blanchard. "If there are concerns for iron deficiency anemia, your pediatrician can check your child's hemoglobin and iron levels."
Did your child hold his breath? How did you cope?
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