Breath Holding Spells

Up until these past two days, the scariest thing that I had been through with Mabel was falling down the stairs while holding her.  But this weekend decided to scare me to the point where I thought I was going to lose my baby…

This post is going to be a lot of text, but there’s no way around it.

Let me start from the beginning:
Mabel and I were playing with the dogs and she was having lots of giggles over picking up pieces of dog kibble and taking turns letting the pugs lick it off of her hand.  I was watching her like a hawk since the other day she decided to make a snack of the dogs’ food (yuck).

So after doing this for a few minutes, I picked her up to go back into the family room and she started to cry since she wanted to stay there.  She let out a long cry and as she was about to inhale there was nothing.

I thought she was doing what she had done several times in the past, taking a few seconds before breathing in.

Well seconds were going by and she started turning blue…..very blue.

She wasn’t breathing.  Her mouth was open as if she was trying to take in air but nothing was going in.

Oh my God, had she stuck a kibble in her mouth without me seeing it?  Was she choking?!

I flipped her over and hit her several times with my palm in between her shoulder blades (thank goodness I had remembered what to do in case a baby was choking).  But still nothing.

She was even more blue.

Thoughts were racing in my head:  What do I do?  Do I call 911?  They’ll never get here in time. 

I ran out to my front lawn thinking I could get a neighbor to help me.  We have a neighbor who is an ER doctor and one who is a police officer.  But just as my feet hit the grass, Mabel’s eyes rolled back into her head, she passed out, went limp and took a breath.

The sweetest breath. Ever.

Slowly she opened her eyes again and over the next few minutes she came back to her normal self.  I was still shaking…and that lasted for awhile after.

I thought I was losing her and now she was back.  I don’t think any parent is ever prepared for that.


After spending 4 hours in the ER last night, chest x-rays to see if she had inhaled anything, and Mabel freaking out since she should have been in bed 3 hours earlier the doctor told me that Mabel hadn’t choked but that she went through a Breath Holding Spell.

Mabel at the hospital after having a breath holding spell
Little Mabel with her hospital bracelet.

What’s a breath holding spell (BHS)?  Without going into super detail, it’s when a child holds their breath until they pass out and then starts breathing again.  About 5% of children will have a breath holding spell.  The child has no control over the spells, it’s more like a reflex when a child is upset or crying.  There is no way to prevent them (some have mentioned blowing in the child’s face but this did nothing for Mabel), no damage is caused and it can be fairly normal (you should see your doctor immediately if you think your child has suffered a BHS for the first time just to rule out other causes).  Also, children tend to outgrow them by the age of 5.

What?!  How come no one ever told me about this before?!  I seriously had thought my child was going to die.

I at least felt better knowing that she was okay and hadn’t choked, but I was still semi traumatized over watching her turn blue and pass out.

The doctor also told me that this might be the only time that something like that happened or it may happen again.  He told me that even his daughter had a breath holding spell when she was younger and it was probably the most scary thing he had to sit there and witness.  Lastly, he told me that if it does happen again, I need to just lay her down and turn her head to the side. I’m going to hope that this was the one and only time it ever happens since I think witnessing all that made me age about 10 years in one day.

Just to give you an idea of what Mabel went through, I found a YouTube video that is very similar.  Only difference is that Mabel turned more blue than this little boy and she didn’t cry before passing out.

*Even though breath holding spells do not require CPR or dealing with choking, I’m issuing a public service announcement:  if you are expecting or already have little ones, please read this post from BabyCenter about what to do if a baby is choking and also how to do CPR on a baby.  You’ll never know if you’ll need it but you’ll be thankful you read it if the situation arises.  Infant First Aid and CPR.*

Has your child ever gone through a breath holding spell?



20 thoughts on “Breath Holding Spells

  1. Jade says:

    Oh my gosh! I am glad she is okay!!! Thanks for sharing. I have never heard of this before in my life. I always get scared when Dylan starts coughing uncontrollably due to a tickle in his throat so I could not imagine going through what you went through.

  2. Jessamyn says:

    OH MY! Thank goodness she is okay! That is the scariest thing I have ever heard. I mean JJ has done one of those cries with no sound and no breathing but not to the point where he turns blue. Def going to keep an eye out for that! I am with Jade. I have never heard of this up until now. I cannot imagine the horror. So glad she okay mama!

  3. melanie @ now a queen says:

    oh my gosh, that is scary. Brought tears to me eyes, I couldn’t imagine the fear you had! I am glad she is ok. This is new info to me and good info to know. Fingers crossed that is the only time you will have to experience it.

  4. Colleen H. says:

    It’s so scary! I’ve had a few babies while working in daycare who did this. I can’t imagine how scary it is when it’s your own child. One of the parents told me to blow a breath in their face when they started holding their breath and they would get back to crying and breathing normally, worked like a charm.

  5. sarah dorsey says:

    This must of been the most terrifying thing every, I can’t imagine. Glad that both you and Mabel are doing a little better now! ** So glad I found your blog! It’s been so long since we’ve talked, I’ll be sure to add you to my reader!

  6. Ashley S. says:

    This is crazy! I have never heard of this and it is fairly common? Wow…my heart sank and I was holding my breath just reading your post. I can’t imagine, but I sure went and brushed up on my choking and CPR reading. At least we know about it now. Thank God she is okay!!!!

  7. Lorraine says:

    Luke did this A LOT when he was younger. He would never pass out though, at least from what I could tell. It really is the scariest thing ever!!

    I hope Mabel is ok and doesn’t go through it again.


  8. Cara says:

    How very scary! Even with no oxygen getting to the brain for those seconds it doesn’t cause any harm? Thank goodness. Choking in children just terrifies me, this is even worse!

  9. Jen says:

    My son has unfortunately experienced many of these spells. They are horrific. We thought we lost him twice and called 911 in a panic knowing that they would not get there in time when he was so blue and not breathing. I thank you for writing this post because there is so little information out there about these and even less support for the parents who have to experience them. These spells do not respond to blowing in the face. They are characterized by the children turning blue and falling unconcious. There is no damage because once unconcious the brain stem notices the lack of oxygen and restarts breathing. We of course went through tons of testing at the hospital to rule out all sorts of disorders – including an EKG, an EEG and an endoscopy. In the end he was diagnosed with breath holding. I will never get over the first few times I saw it happen. I hope your little girl is OK. My son luckily only has his episodes every few months but some experience them every day – I can’t even imagine!

  10. Christy Garrett says:

    My daughter did this when she was younger and it scared the crap out of me. I rushed her to the car and drove as quickly as I could to the ER. I didn’t know what was going on but as a first time mom, I wanted to make sure that she was ok. The doctor said that breath holding is something that some toddlers do and you have to just let them do their thing. After the doctor told me that, I was mortified and felt dumb for wasting a trip to the ER. Thankfully, she only did that to us once.

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  12. Amber j says:

    my 9 month old son did this exact same thing two nights ago while i was feeding him dinner. i accidentally pinched his little arm with the tray of his highchair. he took a big breath to cry and just froze in that position and started turning blue then went limp and passed out. i thought for sure i was holding my dead baby. i even did the same sprint to the neighbor thing, she is a nurse. he started breathing in our drive way right before i got to her house. i actually didn’t go to the doc right away because i was sure he had choked. But then he did the same thing the next day when he was upset about a diaper change. This time i knew he wasn’t choking and we went strait to the ER. same diagnoses as your daughter has. this is the worst thing i have ever ever dealt with, i can’t even explain the terror i have been through in the last 48 hours. i need support from mom who have been through this, how did you function day to day?

  13. Nichole says:

    My four year old son has done this quite a few times. He is a bit dramatic when he gets hurt and always takes a while before he starts to scream. Last year he did this and I picked him up and sat him on a chair. I thought he was doing his regular break between injury and crying and I thought he might not even cry. Then went stiff and passed out and started to tip off the chair. It scared me so badly! He has done this since and we watch him closely when we think he may do it again. I have been able to stop him and get him to look at me and breath before he passes out. Hopefully your little one won’t do it again.

  14. amy says:

    You are not alone! I have experienced (almost) the same episodes, except thankfully my son, who is now 21 months old, will eventually take a breath, but not before many, many seconds have passed, turning blue, lips blue, pained look on his face, the whole bit. It is still so scary every time it happens, even though I’m aware of what is happening and have seen it before. I stumbled on your site (researching erin condren life planners!) but have never seen or heard of these spells, so thank you for the blog post about them, it it comforting to know that they are harmless if by chance my son ever gets to that point of passing out (I think we’ve been very close several times). And also the great reminder about infant CPR.

  15. Kristin says:

    Horrible! Both of my daughters (but not my son) have gone through this. My older daughter is almost 6, but from about 10 months – 2.5 years she had maybe 8 or 10 breath holding spells. My younger daughter is 17 months, and from about 13 months on she’s been having them. They’ve been as frequent as every other day for the past month. I am almost completely used to them by now (it’s heartbreaking to see, but it typically doesn’t make me nervous anymore). I actually am more afraid of scaring people we’re with/near if they haven’t been through it before. So if I can tell it’s about to happen, I go off by ourselves and let her go through it. If anyone going through this has any questions or just wants to talk it through, don’t hesitate to contact me!

    • Jennie says:

      i would love to speak with you on how to handle BHS. I’m struggling with this myself at my end. Looking for coping strategies. Anything helps.

  16. Jenny says:

    I just found your post on Pinterest.

    My daughter just went through this on Tuesday. I feel the exact same way as you. I would say that she was more on the pale side than blue, but the exact same thing happened.

    Has it happened again to your daughter? How have you been coping?

    I just wrote a post about it on my blog. I would love to hear your thoughts.

    Please feel free to email me if you’d like to discuss this more.

  17. Jeel says:

    My daughter has breath holding spells quite often it’s something I’ve become accustomed to when she cries really hard but when it first happened I was terrified she took a deep breathing in but wouldn’t exhale then she started rolling from side to side and jerking around and I honestly thought she was having a seizure she didn’t past out and she never has because if that were to happen I don’t know what I’d do but normal when I happens I gently press on her abdomen and she comes right out of it because that blowing in the face doesn’t work my daughter has a spell at least 2 times a week and when I told her doctor I was told that it’s somewhat common because I was afraid that she maybe having seizures but hopefully all is well with your family

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