My 3 yo holds his breath throughout the day. He'll breathe in (short), hold it for 3-7 seconds, then breathe out (short) and repeat that frequently. He does this when he's awake, but probably not conscious of what he's doing, like when he's watching TV. At night, when he's asleep, he doesn't hold his breath at all, he breathes normally, though his breathing seems a little short.

Could this be related to asthma?

We're scheduled to take him in to a breathing specialist to get it checked out in the next few weeks, but I was wondering if anyone else has encountered this before.

  • 3-7 seconds is not holding your breath. That almost sounds like the opposite: Hyperventilating. Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 13:53
  • Have you asked your child why he does it?
    – HedgeMage
    Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 14:04
  • 3
    @HedgeMage - Yes, but he says "I don't know". Pretty much all you can expect from a 3yo. :)
    – J.J.
    Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 16:07
  • 8
    then he's probably doing it because it's interesting, and keeps doing it because it perplexes grown-ups :P
    – HedgeMage
    Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 16:27
  • I have to figure this out. My daughter does the same thing and has for four years now. We are going for an upper endoscopy next month b/c I am thinking she has silent reflux. (Actually I know she has that--just do'nt know if it's related to the weird breathing thing). I have asked so many doctors about this breathing and every one of them has a different answer!!!
    – user3836
    Commented Feb 5, 2013 at 4:31

6 Answers 6


I'm the original poster. Nobody gave an answer that covers what turned out to be the actual cause, so I'm posting this answer to bring closure to this question. Hopefully this will be useful to anybody who is experiencing the same issue with their child.

It turns out that the cause of the breath holding was due to swollen tonsils and adenoids. The enlarged tissues around the airway was causing our son to not be able to get enough air, which caused him to constantly take short breaths and hold them as a way to compensate. It was also causing him to have sleep apnea. (Note: In the original question, I said there were no breathing issues at night when he was asleep. I was wrong. We just weren't observing long enough and at the right times.)

We took him to an ENT specialist / surgeon who said that the best option was just to remove them, because they were so swollen. After having his tonsils and adenoids removed, his breath-holding and sleep apnea went away, almost immediately.

  • I'm curious, was there some reason this didn't show up in a regular exam, e.g annual check-up? Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 1:06

I have a 5 year old asthmatic boy who does this and it is one of the first signs that he is starting to have issues with a flare-up of his asthma. I first noticed it while listening to him watching TV in another room. Our pediatrician says what is happening is he is overpressurizing his lungs to help him get more air into the constricted spaces. He doesn't even realize he's doing it. Once he starts to do it we have to switch to our more agressive management protocol.


I have a 10 year old son that has done this regularly all his life. He also has had asthma from 11 months old. I really think they are related and think the pediatrician who says he is unconsciously over pressurizing his lungs seem to make sense. I certainly notice it more when his asthma is about to or is glaring up he does it at night before sleeping and is completely unaware of it and I have never brought it to his attention

  • This is a new association for me - love getting new information. Thanks. Commented Nov 8, 2012 at 2:58

I think it's just bad practice in breathing. That happens to people sometimes, they get stuck in a pattern that's wrong. The most common is inflating your chest instead of your stomach when you breathe.

Practicing consciously breathing correctly usually fixes it I don't know how to do that with a child, but the specialist you are about to see will.

  • 1
    I think this is it, just a habit of sorts. When I was little (4–6) I used to have weird breathing patterns due to obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and I didn't notice it at all till my parents pointed it out.
    – Jon Purdy
    Commented Apr 7, 2011 at 13:42

A three-year-old could be experiencing breathing difficulties but lack the verbiage to talk about them or the awareness to realize they are difficulties. Given that you haven't paid any attention to it in the past, and he's still doing it, it could either be a bad habit or indicative of some condition. Asthma is a concern, but how about:

  • seasonal allergies?
  • pet allergies?
  • allergies to dust?
  • allergies to a cleaning agent used in your home? (e.g. I was horribly allergic to Pine Sol as a kid.)

Any of those things could cause mucus, which might cause a child to breathe oddly. Of course one of the earlier commentators mentioned an obsessive-compulsive tendency as a possibility too. It's good to gather some questions to ask your child's doctor; prior to the appointment you may want to assess your family history for all the things listed in these answers so the doctor can either rule them out or consider them as possibilities.


Since he's only doing it while he's awake I don't think it's a medical issue; if it were, he'd continue in his sleep. It seems to me that it's just something that currently fascinates him, and even more so because of the attention he's getting from it.

Has he recently invented this? Then I think it will pass again.

  • The thing is that he's been doing it for several months now, and we've given it absolutely no attention. We never even mentioned it to him more than once or twice in passing, mostly just to ask if he's realized that he's doing it and see if he can tell us why.
    – J.J.
    Commented Apr 7, 2011 at 4:15
  • @JavidJamae: If it hasn't passed yet, you should have it checked. The other answers indicate that there might be an indication of asthma, as you also suspect yourself. Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 8:55

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