Breath holding in babies and toddlers

Shock, anger or frustration can sometimes lead to breath-holding. In smaller children, the reaction is genuine, older toddlers may be doing it for effect. How can you read the signs?


There are always those moments, when a child has tripped or bumped into something, when we hold our breath: is our baby going to be soothed happy again or are we about to see a wave of traumatised tears? However, breath-holding in children is usually brought about as a reaction to a toddler not getting their own way.


Toddlers who hold their breath

Even though a child may learn to play by the rules, until they are at least three years old, they cannot begin to truly understand cause and effect. Therefore, when they break the rules or boundaries we set them, they are often baffled by the reaction they get from cross parents. Breath-holding is their way of trying to claw back some control, or at least some room to negotiate.

The first time a child holds their breath (for what seems a terrifying duration for the parent), is usually during a raging bout of uncontrollable anger or frustration. They may forget to breathe in during a flood of tears, and suddenly they notice their are holding their breath. If the child then continues to hold their breath, it is possible that their lips and skin turn pale or blue. At this point, they may faint, which is the body’s way of recovering on autopilot. It looks worse than it is, because a child who has passed out will then start to breathe again.

Holding their breath like this cannot harm your child because the body will not allow him or her to stop breathing long enough to do any serious damage (just as we couldn’t ourselves, under normal conditions).

It is hard to switch off your own emotions when a child reacts in such a way. However, it is important for you to be on guard where possible. If an episode like this gets a shocked reaction the first time it happens (and why wouldn’t it, from any worried adult?), the toddler will use it as a way of ending future confrontations and as a route to getting his or her own way.

Discuss your reactions with your partner so that you can be prepared for other incidents and be united in how you deal with them. There is no need to make the breath-holding incidents another issue to argue about with your child, but be firm and stick to your guns over the initial cause for disgareement, then your child will know that the hassle of holding his or her breath isn’t going to win them battles.

Reflex Anoxic Seizures

Babies and toddlers (indeed, people of any age) can suffer from something far more serious, when they have a shock or an extreme emotional episode. This is called reflex anoxic seizure.

When a small child falls or has a bump and it gives them a shock, they may pass out. They stop breathing and their heart stops too. They go pale, their eyes may roll back, and they will be stiff or their limbs may jerk. After about a minute (but what seems like an eternity), they will start to breath again but will be unconscious. It is a frightening condition and many people are unaware of it until their child has their first episode. Amazingly, it does not do any long-term damage to the child but he or she will be groggy for a while afterwards.

For some children, episodes may be rare and in others it becomes a regular event or happens a few times over a set period. It is an alarming experience for anyone present and it is a good idea to call an ambulance as medical assistance in important in determining that such an episode has been caused by RAS and not something else. However, if the condition is confirmed, it issomething that a family can learn to deal with eventually, and something the child may well grow out of.


Visit the website of the charity STARS at, to find out more about the condition, and for advice and support.

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