Manipulative Toddler Breath-Holding Earns Them Temper Tantrum Victories

breasth-holdingWhen I was a teenager making some outlandish request, my mother would tell me “not to hold my breath,” but that’s exactly what these toddlers are doing.  And it’s working to hold their parents hostage.

These children are prone to ”breath holding spells” — a true medical condition which they are likely to outgrow by the age of eight.   However, word must have gotten around on the playground because parents and child psychologists warn that breath holding incidents in toddlers could become manipulative.  Once they pick up on the effectiveness of the technique, industrious children will aim to take advantage of their parents’ fear.

Ari Brown, an Austin, Texas, pediatrician and author of the book, “Toddler 411,” encourages parents to not let a toddler’s breath-holding behavior compromise their discipline tactics.   Brown explains the episodes are not harmful in typical children with good health:

“If the child actually holds his breath until he passes out, the body’s natural mechanism to breathe — just like when you are sleeping — kicks in and overrides the child’s forced breath-holding.”

Easier said than done.

Consequences of these episodes include turning white, turning blue, falling/crashing to the floor (causing secondary injuries) and their face being frozen with mouth agape.

When my daughter was just two months old, I experienced this scary phenomenon firsthand.  She was at the doctor getting a routine shot.  She opened her mouth to cry but no sound came out.  Her mouth stayed open wide and her face turned shades of pink then red.  The doctor knew exactly what to do and, in an instant, sound came from my daughter’s mouth:  a big gasp followed by shrill cries.

“If she does that at home,” the doctor warned, “just blow in her mouth.”

Sure enough, it worked then and we’ve used the technique at home a couple of times.  She has yet to realize I’d buy her a mini-motorized Mercedes that we can’t afford if she did it to get her way, so I sympathize with those moms who have to endure the condition.  It’s a scary sight.

(photo: Thomas M Perkins/ Shutterstock)

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  • E.D.

    One of my younger sisters used to do this, mostly at the dinner table when she didn’t want to eat something. They will start breathing again after they pass out.

    • Rachel Sea

      I can’t imagine the tenacity required to hold your breath until you faint.

  • Myna

    My niece did this all the time when she didn’t get what she wanted immediately, such as a toy or some other treat. Finally, I just let her fall to the ground when she was about six or so, and she’s never done it since. Problem solved!

  • Ellie

    My younger brother used to do this. After the first couple of times, my folks just started stepping over him and going on with what they were doing. Didn’t take long for him to stop when it wasn’t working to get him what he wanted.

    • Sara

      This. Kids will continue any behavior that gets them what they want. If the parents give in to the breath-holding, tantrums, or whatever, it will continue. Kids won’t kill themselves or cause serious damage this way, so parents need to just relax. Once the kid sees that holding his breath isn’t going to get him what he wants, he’ll stop because there won’t be any point.

  • Caitlin

    When children throw tantrums like that, I think its much more dangerous to give into a child’s demands to make them stop, than to ignore them and let them pass out a couple of times. That behavior is teaching your child that holding their breath will get them what they want.. thus they’ll do it more and more. Possibly in a situation where there aren’t any adults around and they could hit their head.

  • Véronique Houde

    And hey, if they hit their head while passing out, they FOR sure won’t do it again ;) no kid actually wants to cause themselves physical pain from throwing a tantrum, they just don’t think it’ll get that far!

    • Rachel Sea

      How many people have seen a small child make sure they will have a soft landing before throwing themselves on the ground? Few kids will throw themselves onto a painful surface more than once.

  • lala

    Wow I had no idea this was a thing. When I have kids, if one of them chooses to do this, I might just laugh at them. I realize I’ll probably react differently as an actual mom … but seriously what a bratty way to behave. Is it bad parenting to tell them that they look ridiculous? Does a toddler even understand that?

  • K.

    Um, kids in general will resort to tactics that parents would find scary/unsafe/embarrassing. That’s why they do them–they’re transgressing. If they did things that were only slightly inconsiderate and only brief, minor lapses in rational judgment, then parenting would be a breeze. But honestly, unless your kid is holding his/her breath at the head of a flight of stairs or on a floor littered with broken glass, then they’ll simply collapse and take a breath (most won’t even have the resolve to get there). And then most won’t even try it again IF you hold stand your ground. They’re smart enough to realize that it’s a lot of effort and when it doesn’t give them what they want, then it’s on to the next trick…Which is likely to be just as devious and scary as the last. Such are kids.