Smart Woman: Breath Holding in Children

7 year old Alexander Pottinger's mother remembers every terrifying detail of the time Alexander went limp in his father's arms.

Katie Pottinger said, "I immediately went and called 911 because my husband said he's not breathing."

Alexander was a year and a half and had just taken a fall. He let out a huge cry, then went silent and passed out. As his parents called for an ambulance, and Alexander started to revive.

"The doctor said, 'I know exactly what this is. It's a breath holding spell'," said Pottinger.

About 5 percent of children will have at least one breath holding spell, most often between the ages of one and three. There are two kinds, a "pallid" spell usually starts with a minor injury. The heart rate slows and the child passes out. "Cyanotic" spells are more common and happen when a child becomes angry or upset.

"They often start crying very hard and then they're silent. They essentially stop breathing, can turn either purple or blue, and they may pass out," said Dr. Patricia Hametz of Morgan Stanley Childrens Hospital.

As frightening as that may sound, doctors say the episode is benign. It passes in less than a minute with no damage done.There's nothing you can do to prevent breath holding but if it happens, doctors say to cushion the child's fall and make sure the tongue isn't blocking the airway.

Alexander had a couple more episodes before he grew out of it.

"It happened maybe 3 or 4 times and I knew what to look for," said Pottinger.

He has no memory of it now but his mom says it was a scare she's not likely to forget.

Most children don't need treatment for breath holding. But it's a good idea to notify your pediatrician if it happens.

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