Our baby rocks his crib and holds his breath!


Our one year old Ben is a happy, fun, and outgoing little guy.  He eats well, sleeps well, and is usually in a good mood.  Except when he’s not!  When he’s overtired, he gets a lot of comfort from being rocked, which is fine, but he keeps rocking even in his crib--he can actually move the crib while he’s doing it!  If we’re in a situation where he’s tired and we can’t get him to sleep, he may have a tantrum. Sometimes he can get so worked up that he starts to hold his breath while he’s crying.  Once his lips turned bluish!  It has really freaked us out. My pediatrician says not to worry, but I do.  No one else seems to have these issues.

 Your description of Ben as a happy and outgoing baby tells you that his rocking and holding his breath when he’s having a meltdown aren’t anything to worry about. Many babies and toddlers have these types of behaviors. They aren’t uncommon but are unusual enough to cause parents some concern.   Most of the time these habits begin as a way for a baby to comfort himself or to discharge feelings of tension. A child who is engaged and interactive all day sometimes winds up overdoing it (or parents let him overdo it, because everyone seems to be having fun!) and then it’s hard for him to reach a state of calm.  Rocking helps Ben to sooth himself.  The breath holding probably occurs when he’s way beyond self soothing.

Ben’s need for rocking is more dramatic than most babies, but very common. Most babies and toddlers use rhythmic movements to comfort themselves.  Thumb sucking, ear pulling, and hair twisting are common behaviors.  Other children have combination habits, such as rolling the edge of a blanket and sucking fingers while being cuddled in a mother's lap.  All of these rhythmic habits probably stem from an infant's earliest memories of his mother's regular heartbeat and the comfort he received from being held close while he sucked.  Some babies like to repeat and exaggerate these rhythms and like to be rocked.  As they get older, they rock themselves, even to the point of getting on hands and knees to rock forcefully until they fall asleep.  Ben sounds like he is pretty strong if he can move his entire crib with his rocking.  But some toddlers can rock hard enough so that their crib moves from one end of the room to another!  If the noise is bothering you in another room, you may want to put a rug underneath the crib to keep it from moving.

If a baby does not typically rock in this way, it may be a way of coping with the discomfort of teething or an ear infection.  But in Ben’s case, this is his usual behavior, so there is no cause for concern.  All you can do is provide him with some rocking and relaxation with you before bedtime and then let him finish off in his own way.  Although rocking can be a noisy and sometimes inconvenient habit for parents, it is NOT a problem for a baby.  It ’s best to accept that this is just Ben’s way for now.

Ben’s breath holding is also normal, though less common at his age than it it is in older toddlers, probably because older toddlers have more meltdowns and tantrums!  When a toddler is having a tantrum he may take in a deep breath to cry and then hold his breath.  If he keeps holding his breath, his skin will begin to look gray or blue.  Some babies may even go briefly unconscious. A few babies will stiffen and twitch during this time.  As frightening as this may appear to parents, it is not a danger to the child.  As soon as he has held his breath too his body's natural reflexes take over and he will begin breathing again. 

The first time this occurs, it’s a good idea to call your health care provider for advice, as you have done.  The pattern of normal breath holding spells is that they occur in the middle of crying. Any other pattern should be investigated.  If a baby or toddler has frequent episodes, it’s useful to check for iron deficiency anemia, since iron supplements will sometimes alleviate the pattern.

The other reason to get reassurance is to help you control your own response.  If parents panic and start to get upset every time a baby or toddler begins to scream, fearing another breath holding episode, a child may get into the habit of breath holding every time he gets upse!.  Although repeated episodes are no more damaging than occasional ones, a habitual response will be harder to change. If Ben’s breath holding episodes continue to freak you out, talk to your health care provider about your worries.  Breath holding, like any kind of tantrum behavior, is best managed by a parent staying casual and calm.

Last, it may be that Ben’s usual easy going behavior has led to your allowing him to become overstimulated and overtired.  Sometimes adaptable babies cope well with a busy day and then fall apart when they get home or at bedtime.  If you see this pattern with Ben, it’s a good idea to slow the pace of activities and provide some down time in the early evening.  He’s too young to know when he’s about to fall apart, but if you are sensitive to his cues you may be able to avoid most melt downs rather than dealing with the breath holding!