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  • Help! My Toddler Turns Blue When He Cries. What Do I Do?

    Children with these crying spells can be terrifying for both parent and tot!
    by Jillianne E. Castillo .
Help! My Toddler Turns Blue When He Cries. What Do I Do?
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  • “Napapansin ko lately, kapag may mga bagay na 'di nakuha, inagaw, o kapag nasaktan, iiyak [yung anak ko], pipigilan ang paghinga hanggang sa nagiging violet na ang mga labi atsaka namumutla. Pang ilang beses na 'tong nangyayari. Nagpa-panic na kami...Dapat na ba akong mabahala at ipatingin ko na siya sa pedia?” 

    This was a problem posed by SmartParenting.com.ph Parent Chat user Mommyjanice. Fellow SP Parent Chat moms in the thread speculated it might be a "breath-holding spell." Some shared that they experienced the very same thing with their own young ones — the babies would cry and hold their breaths until their lips turned blue. 

    As an introduction to breath-holding spells, here’s what you need to know about it and why they can be pretty scary for parents of young children. (When in doubt, always consult a pediatrician.) 

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    What are breath-holding spells
    Witnessing a child having a breath-holding spell for the first time can definitely be a terrifying experience for a parent. Spells are usually triggered after a child is frightened, upset, or experiences sudden pain, which causes a change in breathing pattern or a slowing of the heart rate, explained the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority.

    Breath-holding spells are an involuntary reflex — a child doesn’t intentionally do it and has no control over it.  First, the child will start to cry but, after a few seconds, will become silent and have difficulty breathing. Because of this, she will quickly turn pale or blue in color. The child may also lose consciousness and become stiff or limp, explained Dr. Sarah Roddy, an associate professor of pediatrics and neurology at the Loma Linda University School of Medicine. 

    “The child usually recovers in less than one minute. He may gasp and then have a return of regular breathing. He will regain consciousness and return to normal although he may seem to be tired,” she said.

    In more extreme cases, spells may look like seizures as well. “These are not epileptic seizures, but are seizure-like movements that result from the child having a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure, which in turn decreases blood flow to the brain,” explained the pediatrician. 

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    Harmful or not?
    Terrifying, right? “Although they're upsetting to watch, breath-holding spells aren't harmful and pose no serious health risks,” according to KidsHealth by the Nemours Foundation.

    Dr. Roddy also reassured parents, “Breath-holding spells are not harmful and do not result in brain damage. They do not affect the child’s development or have any long-term effect on his life.”

    While it happens to children aged 6 months to 6 years old, the spells are most common during the toddler years. They usually go away on their own as the child grows older. “Breath-holding spells usually occur in children who are developmentally normal. They do not have abnormalities in their hearts or brains that cause them to have the events,” added Dr. Roddy. 

    What should a parent do
    After experiencing the first breath-holding spell episode, a parent is advised to consult with a pediatrician. “In some children, breath-holding spells may be related to iron deficiency anemia. This is a condition in which the body does not make a normal number of red blood cells,” explained the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority. If this is so, the doctor may prescribe iron supplements. 

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    If the child is normal and healthy, a talk with a pediatrician will help calm a parent’s shaken nerves. The doctor will also be able to give advice on what a mom or dad should do while the spell is happening. The U.K. National Health Service (NHS) says to avoid shaking the child, hitting the child, and giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. “You don't need to try to help your child breathe or help their heart beat.”

    Parents are advised to stay calm, let the child lie down, remove nearby objects to protect from injury, and wait for the spell to pass. “Reassure your child and make sure they get plenty of rest after,” said the NHS. 

    When to worry

    Breath-holding spells typically only last for less than a minute. If a child remains blue or can’t breathe for longer than a minute, emergency medical care should be sought immediately. Call for help. (A guide for basic first aid for babies can be found here.)

    If the seizure lasts for more than a minute and the child becomes confused or dizzy after the spell, seek medical attention as well. Spells that happen more than once a day or several times a week may also warrant consultation. 

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