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Ask Dr. Sears: Breathless Moments

Q. I'm worried about my 2-year-old's recent breath-holding episodes. Why does he do this, and how can I get him to stop?

A. About 5 percent of all infants and toddlers have these spells, which are really exaggerated temper tantrums. They happen when a child gets so upset that he loses control of himself, keeps crying, and winds up holding his breath. His face turns red or  -- if he holds his breath long enough  -- pale. On rarer occasions, a child's lips might turn blue and he could faint.

These spells are harmless and usually subside once a child is 3 or 4 and can express his frustration in words rather than actions. But I know that's a long time to wait, considering how scary these episodes can be.

I remember when my daughter Hayden first threw a fit and held her breath. Even though I knew not to be alarmed, as a parent I was frightened. Eventually, I learned to figure out when she was most apt to hold her breath  -- which, as with most kids, was usually when she didn't get her way. Then I'd try to temper those situations. For example, if your child breaks down when you tell him he can't touch something, offer a substitute, such as a favorite toy. Or if he gets cranky when he's hungry, make sure he has a snack in between meals.

And most important, if a breathless tantrum starts, don't panic  -- doing so will only reinforce your little one's behavior. Instead, hold him and talk in a calm, reassuring voice. Generally, as soon as a child gets the message "No problem, you can handle this," he'll literally breathe a sigh of relief.