What in The World are Breath Holding Spells?

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Our 16 month old son, Tristan, has Breath Holding Spells or BHS. In short, he holds his breath till he passes out. BHS is not particularly dangerous. I have learned that many kids experience them. They start at a young age and usually disappear as a child grows older. There are different types of spells. Tristan’s spells include the following: throwing his head back, stiffening of limbs, crying and then loss of breath, rolling his eyes into his head, turning white or blue in the face, fainting, and sometimes convulsions or seizure activity. As a parent they are very frightening! The second BHS that Tristan had on Sunday involved all of the above. Living in Mexico, we experienced Tristan having Breath Holding Spells on numerous occasions. Three or four times, he had convulsions as his body was deprived of oxygen. They were all very short in length, lasting less than 60 seconds.

I did my homework as a mom and read all about Breath Holding Spells. BHS is an inherited condition. My father had BHS and Brad’s mom had BHS. Taylor, our nine-year old, had BHS on two occasions. I guess Tristan got it naturally from the family genes. We were fortunate that for the first three weeks in Kentucky, Tristan did not have any spells. I thought maybe he was getting better. I did not think I would be spending a night in Kosair Hospital with him while visiting the States for the month of September. Only two days before I had talked with our Kentucky family doctor about Tristan’s BHS. She told me the same things I had read, “Don’t worry. It’s common in children. He will grow out of it. Try not to make a big deal about them.” Next thing I know I am in the ER waiting to see a doctor.

On Sunday Tristan had two spells. Both spells were immediately after he became angry and emotional. The latter was worse than usual. Tristan’s convulsions lasted 90 seconds or longer. This was the longest seizure I have seen. It was pretty awful to see such a little person so helpless. I picked Tristan up and ran outside to stop Brad from going to the store. We were staying with my parents in Springfield and Tristan managed to freak out his grandparents too. Even after he stopped convulsing, he was not acting normal. Brad said we could see a doctor in Mexico. I said, “No. We are going to Kosair now!” I contacted our family doctor and talked with the nurse practitioner on call. This is what she suggested. We were leaving the States for our home abroad in Mexico in ten days. We have insurance in Kentucky. I would feel much better leaving the country knowing Tristan was okay and he did not have neurological problems.

Tristan was sleepy and hurting during the hour drive from Springfield to Louisville. His molars were coming through. I gave him some homeopathic teething medicine and he started to feel better. At the hospital Tristan wanted to walk around and play. He was acting fairly normal but the nurse took his temperature and he had a fever of 101.5. When we talked with the ER doctor, the diagnosis was that Tristan had a fibral seizure. Fibral seizures happen when your body has a fever that causes a seizure. These are as common as Breath Holding Spells. My mother said I had one when I was a toddler and cutting teeth. I had no clue of this till Tristan’s episode! The stuff you learn every day with kids… Anyway, the nurse gave Tristan rectal Tylenol and the fever disappeared. It was probably the effect of teething. The doctors suggested that Tristan be scheduled for an EEG despite their diagnosis. Especially since we were headed to Mexico. They wanted to be on the safe side. We spent the night in the hospital so we could have the EEG in-patient in the morning and be done with all this.

The night went pretty smoothly besides the fact that I sat in Sprite. Brad went home to get some rest. Tristan and I had a big room to ourselves. The couch I slept on was actually comfortable, or I was exhausted. Maybe both. They had to put an IV in Tristan’s little hand. He handled it like a man. Unlike the smooth night we had, the EEG the following morning was awful. We sat in a recliner while the technician attempted to attach 25 wires to Tristan’s head. He let her put on two and then it was all over. Game on. The screaming lasted almost the entire session. I had to hold him down to keep him from pulling the wires off. At one point Tristan managed to pull out his IV and we had a bloody mess. My kid is a fighter! At the very end he gave the technician a smile and all was good. He left the EEG with a new hairdo from the wire glue gel or whatever you call it. And the IV stayed out because Tristan’s nurse didn’t know he took it out. So that was also a plus.

Soon after lunch a silly, kid-friendly neurologist came in to visit us with good news. There was no seizure activity on the EEG. Tristan had a provoked seizure from the Breath Holding Spell and/or the fever. Probably a combination of the two. Some people are more prone to seizures then others. Unprovoked seizures, seizures lasting longer then two or three minutes, and multiple seizures in one day should give cause for concern. In the neurologist opinion Tristan would be fine, but since we were headed to Mexico he gave us his email and a prescription for rectal valium just in case. Rectal valium apparently will stop a seizure quickly in a toddler. I hope we don’t have to use it!

My mom-in-law spent the morning with us and gave us a ride home. The other kids were at my parents and they were very happy to see that Tristan was okay. Of course, Brad and I were too! No parent wants to learn that their kid has neurological problems. After living through Brad’s Traumatic Brain Injury in 2001 and living with the side effects of the TBI for the last 13 years, I know how terrible neurological problems can be. They are a physical and mental illness combined. The patient suffers, as well as the people they love. They can be hard to diagnose and difficult to treat. No two brains are alike. Transplants are not available or even possible. Brains are truly the most awesome organic computers on the planet! As a wife to a TBI survivor, a mom to daughters with ADHD and ODD, and now a mom to a son with BHS…. I sign off to you, smiling and happy because life could always be more difficult, then living in Mexico with my husband and our four kids ;-) Tina

Tristan-Hospital-04 Tristan-Hospital-03 Tristan-Hospital-02

5 thoughts on “What in The World are Breath Holding Spells?

  1. Sarah Thornton says:

    What a little stinker!:-). I can only imagine how terrified you must have been. I’m so so glad it all turned out well.

  2. Lisa says:

    Okay… Thank you for this… My daughter holds her breath to the point where I’ve seen her eyes roll back in her head. She mostly does in when she is in her car seat which is horrible because I’m constantly pulling over to make sure she’s still breathing… I am a Child Development Consultant and I had NEVER heard of these spells until I had my little girl and she started at 6 months…

  3. Jamie says:

    Thank you for posting your experiences. My first child has this happen and it’s escalated lately as he’s been teething. I read a lot online about it on medical sites, but it’s really comforting to hear about it from a parent’s perspective.

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