Breath Holding Spells

We've had a few questions about Winter and her breath holding spells, so I decided to write a little bit about what we've been experiencing.

The first time it happened, Perry, Winter and I were in the bathroom while she was taking a bath. She had just turned one a few weeks before. She was overtired and we could tell she was a bit agitated. Winter kept tossing out her toy boat and after the tenth time of retrieving it, I simply put it behind my back because it was clearly becoming a source of frustration. This sent her over the edge. She let out a yell but then looked like she was silently crying, held her breath, arched her back and her face and lips began to turn blue. I immediately swooped her up and ran into the kitchen where Perry's mother was sitting. She used to be an emergency room nurse so I yelled for her to look at Winter and to tell me if she was breathing. She was and was laying her head on my shoulder.

We were so close to taking her to the hospital. I honestly thought we lost her when she stopped breathing and turned blue. Thankfully, with Perry's mother's background as a nurse, she suggested that we just google "breath holding spells" and it depicted exactly what happened to Winter.

The next day it happened again. This time, it was because she was tired and I walked away from her (like literally a foot away). When I turned around, she was on the floor with her back arched and non-responsive. I once again picked her up and ran over to Perry and his mother. She started breathing within seconds once I picked her up and that's when I made an appointment with a doctor.

The doctor explained that breath holding spells are actually quite common and affect between 4-5% of the toddler population. It typically onsets around one (which is exactly when they started for Winter) and would likely begin to dwindle after age two. The doctor stated that they’re behavioral and not related to seizures. She added that longitudinal studies have shown that babies with breath holding spells are at no greater risk of experiencing learning difficulties or any health complications.

The doctor helped me realize that Winter’s trigger was when she became overly frustrated (especially when she was tired) or when she perceived that I was going to be taken away from her (e.g., walk out of the room and not come back). Developmentally, the second reason made a ton of sense. Object permanence, or the ability to understand that just because something can't be seen doesn't mean that it is no longer there, begins to form around eight months old and continues to develop well into toddler-hood.

So to avoid some of these triggers, we have been doing the following things:

  • Offering choices, especially at bedtime. Winter had a really bad breath holding spell after I had put her in her crib and walked away. It was definitely the worst of them and since then, we've been very mindful about how we leave her. So instead of telling her it's bedtime, we ask, "Winter do you want to go lay down with Lucy (her favorite stuffed animal) or do you want one more book?" I was so scared that it would become a "one more book" situation every time and we would do this dance for minutes on end, but to my surprise she really does know how to self-regulate. She will either hold up her little pointer finger and ask for one book or point to her crib.
  • Play peek-a-boo: We do this everyday, multiple times a day. I really think it helps her to understand that even though it may seem like we are gone because she can't see us, that we really aren't after all.
  • Creating an iron-rich diet: For some reason, low iron levels are linked to kids who have breath holding spells. We had blood work done for Winter and it turns out her iron was on the very tip toe edge of the low spectrum. Since then, we have been working with our doctor to get her levels up in hopes that it will eliminate these spells. Hopefully, with an iron-rich diet, we will see her levels increase.
  • Having a strict nap schedule: We never in a million years thought we would be the type of family that was bound by a schedule. But, Winter is clearly not a child that can go with the flow or skip naps. So we have dedicated ourselves to making sure that we are home at least 20 minutes before nap time so that she can wind down and get restful sleep.


We’re no experts on this topic; this is only what we have experienced. Winter has had about ten spells since turning one which doesn't seem like a lot, but when they happen, they terrify us. If your baby is experiencing them, definitely consult with your pediatrician. And make sure they don't dismiss your concerns. We had to change pediatricians because the first one when went to simply told to me "stay calm" and "to not worry". That wasn't going to happen, so I was so thankful when I found one that recommended getting her blood work done and gave us the helpful tips mentioned above.

Winter's shirt c/o Colored Organics

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Photography by Brittany Renee'