Breath holding spells are also known as breath holding attacks. They are involuntary episodes during which a child holds their breath, usually triggered by something upsetting or scaring them. They typically occur between 6 and 18 months of age. The child has no control over the breath holding spells. They are not harmful in the long term, do not lead to epilepsy and most children outgrow them by 4 or 5 years.
They are often divided into two types: cyanotic breath holding spells and pallid breath holding spells (also known as reflex anoxic seizures).
Cyanotic Breath Holding Spells
Cyanotic breath holding spells occur when the child is really upset, worked up and crying. After letting out a long cry they stop breathing, become cyanotic and lose consciousness. Within a minute they regain consciousness and start breathing. They can be a bit tired and lethargic after an episode.
Reflex Anoxic Seizures
Reflex anoxic seizures occur when the child is startled. The vagus nerve sends strong signals to the heart that causes it to stop beating. The child will suddenly go pale, lose consciousness and may start to have some seizure-like muscle twitching. Within 30 seconds the heart restarts and the child becomes conscious again.
After excluding other pathology and making a diagnosis, educating and reassuring parents about breath holding spells is the key to management.
Breath holding spells have been linked with iron deficiency anaemia. Treating the child if they are iron deficiency anaemic can help minimise further episodes.