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The Longest Pause: My Son’s First Breath-Holding Spell

I remember my very first experience with my son’s breath-holding.

He was nine months old, the youngest of three children, and we were all seated at the dining room table having a late dinner. My son was seated on my lap, and started acting as if he was hungry, reaching for the food on my plate and scooting himself closer to the table. I let him have a few bites of food, but then decided it would be best to bring him into the kitchen so he could eat in his highchair.

I got up from the table went into the kitchen, placing him into his high chair. My mind focused on what food to get him and how I would cut it up for him. Lost in thought, I glanced over at him and realized he was extremely angry about having been placed in his high chair, and was crying. HARD.

The Pause

Then there was a very long pause—the pause that kids usually take when they’re crying very hard. But this time, it wasn’t followed by that big release breath. He held this long pause, mouth open, food inside, while his face turned bluish. I grabbed him out of his highchair and screamed for my husband. I kept thinking there was food lodged in his airway and that he was silently choking.

My husband, a man with steel nerves and quick thinking, flipped the baby over, tilting him slightly downward, and performed back blows. I saw my baby’s body go limp, and I remember standing frozen in absolute terror. It seemed as if this moment lasted eternity, though it was likely maybe a minute or less. My son then came back to us, letting out a huge gasp. With shaking arms, I reached for his grayish, lethargic body and began to sob. Not knowing what else to do, I sat on the couch and began to nurse him. I watched as the color gradually returned to his face and his limbs.

At the time we didn’t know this, but he hadn’t choked on his food. He had temporarily lost the ability to take a breath due to his own extreme anger.

It Wasn’t the Only Time

Since that day, we’ve watched this event take place much more frequently (he is now 15 months old). Once, we called 911 because he completely lost consciousness. Most weeks, this takes place on a smaller scale, his face will turn gray from lack of oxygen and then just at the moment when I think he’s going to pass out, he’ll let out a huge release cry and be ok.

I’d love to say we found some kind of magical formula that helps him snap out of this, but we haven’t. Occasionally we’ll find that blowing one strong burst of air into his mouth helps, but it doesn’t always. His pediatrician assures us he’s totally healthy and will eventually outgrow this terrifying but harmless habit. But in the meantime, I wonder how I will set the same firm limits for him on a day to day basis as I have for my other two children? How do you parent well when you’re terrified of your child getting angry? The fear of him lacking oxygen is almost too much for my mama heart to bear. Watching him struggle for breath and seeing his body go limp truly breaks me into a million little pieces each time it happens. 

Moms are Brave

And then I remember you. All of you. Mamas reading this post from a hospital room sofa while your baby sleeps and machines beep. Mamas hauling their child to and from chemo therapy, mamas placing their newborn into the arms of a surgeon and praying desperately that everything will be ok. Those desperate for wisdom on how to handle a bullying situation at school. Mamas clicking away on laptops until the wee hours, desperate to read something that would help with the challenges of having an autistic child. Mamas who suffered great losses but pick themselves up each morning to be all the things everyone needs them to be.

I remember you all and I realize I can do this. I can: 

  • Do CPR if I need to.
  • Defend my children if I ever need to.
  • Say the hard thing, be the weirdo, whatever it is, if I had to.

Moms are brave. YOU are brave. 

I lost a dear friend just about two years ago. She suffered some great losses in her short lifetime, but I’ll never forget her words: “You’re stronger than you think you are. You can handle more than you think you can.”

This isn’t about glorifying human strength or having an inflated view of self—it’s about stepping up to the plate for the job before us. Whatever you face, whatever the challenge is. You are brave. Your kids know it. It’s time that you did, too! 

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