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Breath Holding Spells in Tantrums

A toddler throwing a kicking-and-screaming tantrum isn't unusual. But, according to Vicki F. Panaccione, Ph.D., founder of the Better Parenting Institute, in Melbourne, FL, up to 20 percent of toddlers go even further: They experience breath-holding spells, which can cause them to faint or turn blue--and leave anxious parents white as ghosts. What's going on?

The Trigger

Breath-holding spells happen when a child is frustrated, scared, hurt, or angry and holds her breath while crying. Basically, she's so worked up, her lungs aren't expanding and contracting properly.

What to Expect

Most children will pass out for 30 to 60 seconds, then come to, acting sleepy and disoriented for a few minutes. "Medically, this is caused by a change in the usual breathing pattern or a slowing of the heart rate," says Panaccione. It looks scary, but fainting is actually the body's way of short-circuiting danger: Your child will automatically start breathing again, ensuring that she suffers no lasting damage from her tantrum.

What You Can Do

First, check with your doctor to make sure no other medical condition is at play. If it's definitely a spell, it's important to keep in mind that your child isn't trying to faint on purpose--she's just got a particularly dramatic way of expressing those toddler emotions. Panaccione suggests that--instead of panicking, scolding, or yelling--you simply try to distract her at the start of her mega-meltdowns by clapping your hands, gently blowing in her face, or shaking a toy. If those tactics don't work, make sure she's safe, and try to keep your reaction level. "If you give in to a demand or overcoddle her afterward, your toddler will learn that tantrums are an effective way of getting attention," says Panaccione.