My child holds her breath during tantrums, is this harmful?

Q: My toddler has started to have tantrums where she cries and holds her breath. Is this dangerous?

A: Episodes like your child's are very frightening for parents. They're known as breath-holding spells, a misnomer since the problem is actually a neurological glitch involved with exhaling. While tantrums can set them off, it's important to understand that children don't make themselves stop breathing on purpose. The tendency to have these spells is inherited. Children can turn either white or blue during breath-holding spells, which can arise from crying intensely for any reason. Although the episodes are really scary, they don't do any harm to the brain. Research has shown that taking an iron medicine daily for a few months can decrease the number of these events, even if a child isn't anemic. Your daughter's doctor may order a test to check her iron stores. He may also test for heart-rhythm disturbances, although those are a rare cause for this common problem.Breath-holding spells can continue until age 7 or 8. Watch your daughter when she has one, since children can choke if they have something in their mouth or hurt themselves falling. But try to look calm as she comes out of it so she won't be scared or think of tantrums as a way to get attention.

Originally published in Child magazine, October 2006. Updated 2009

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