Nothing will get your attention faster than your toddler turning blue in the face from breath holding and possibly passing out. Fortunately, breath holding is usually a short-lived phase — even if it is a particularly scary and unsettling one.
Generally, there are two types of breath holding that can be part of a temper tantrum or less commonly a medical disorder, or breath holding spells.
As frightening as it is, breath holding is not self-injurious. Your toddler is looking to get a reaction, and initially, it works. Breath holding usually occurs when a child is having a temper tantrum in response to being disciplined (that is being told “no”) but it can also occur when a child gets hurt physically or is afraid.
So what should you do when dealing with a blue-faced, indignant toddler who seems intent on breath holding until passing out? First, recognize that the breath holding is a form of control. If your child gets the desired reaction early on, it could quickly become conscious control.
Like most tantrums, ignoring the behavior is the best approach. Reacting gives your child the attention they are seeking and will thus reinforce breath holding. However, you must first make sure your child is in a safe place, lying down on the floor away from furniture or other objects, in case breath holding results in fainting.
Another approach might be to keep an eye out for triggers for this behavior and look for ways to redirect your child before they reach the passing-out stage. Some experts recommend surprising your child — for example, leaning in close and blowing air in his or her face — to stop the breath holding.
Don’t despair if you can’t interrupt or otherwise stop a breath holding episode. If your child is intent on passing out, react mildly and let it happen. As soon as he or she passes out, your child will automatically begin breathing again. Knowing this can help you control your own panic. Never reward the behavior by giving into your child’s original desire or you’ll be in for more breath holding.
Children are more likely to experience breath holding spells when they are overly tired, frustrated, afraid, or hurt. Children need adequate rest at night and a rest period or nap during the day. Managing the number of parental rules for children and allowing children appropriate ways to assert themselves can also be helpful.
Finally, if your child has done this behavior multiple times or you question whether it might indicate something more serious like a seizure, seek the advice of your toddler’s doctor.
ABC News. Breath-Holding Tots Terrify Parents, Hold Them Hostage.
Sydney Children’s Hospital. Breath-holding Fact Sheet.
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