The little girl who can't get excited this Christmas... or her heart will stop

Holly Cleveland's parents put their Christmas tree up early to try and introduce her slowly to the festive season

Holly Cleveland's breathing stops when she gets too excited. Her parents have put their Christmas tree up early to ease her into the festive season

While most mothers are eager to see their children’s excited faces on Christmas morning, Tina Cleveland is hoping for the opposite.

Her two-year-old daughter Holly suffers from a rare condition that causes her heart and breathing to stop if she gets too excited.

The toddler starts breathing again after 30 seconds – but it feels more like a lifetime for Tina, 42, and Holly’s father Ray, 50.

Mrs Cleveland said: ‘I have been assured that her heart will always start again, but every time it happens I can’t help panicking.

'What mother wouldn’t if her baby was lying on the floor not breathing for half a minute? It’s horrendous.’

The reflex anoxic seizures are triggered by extreme emotions, so just seeing a pile of presents under the Christmas tree could make Holly's heart temporarily seize. 

Mrs Cleveland now has the almost impossible task of stopping her toddler from becoming too excited.

She said: 'This is the first Christmas since Holly’s diagnosis and I’m worried sick.

'Anybody with a toddler will know what I mean when I say it’s going to be nigh on impossible to make sure she doesn’t get too excited.

'We even put our tree up early to try and get her used to the twinkly lights before they started appearing everywhere.

‘It’s heartbreaking to see her little face light up and then have to immediately calm her down again. I’ve even avoided asking her what present she wants because I don’t want her to get too excited when she sees it.

'But we’re still determined to make sure she has the best Christmas.'

Holly, who will be three in February, suffers with reflex anoxic seizures (RAS) caused by an overactive vagus nerve - which is the main communication pathway between the brain and the heart and lungs.

It causes a sudden lack of blood in the brain causing sufferers to temporarily stop breathing and lose consciousness.

Holly's mother first noticed a problem when she was nine months old.

‘She’d been crying but suddenly stopped and went white and floppy. Seconds later she was back round but it was terrifying,' Mrs Cleveland said.

After further episodes they went to the GP, who put it down to deliberate breath-holding.

‘Apparently it’s common for toddlers to hold their breath and pass out if they are having a strop and we were led to believe that’s what Holly was doing,' Mrs Cleveland said.

‘It didn’t make sense to me though because she would also pass out if she was enjoying herself, for example at a party.’

Tina Cleveland pictured with Holly when she was a baby. She first started having seizures at nine months old

Tina Cleveland pictured with Holly when she was a baby. She first started having seizures at nine months old

But in October last year when Holly was 20 months Mrs Cleveland took Holly and her brother Ryan, nine, for a sleepover with her cousins at her sister Nicola’s house.

The parents kissed the children goodbye and drove back to their home in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk.

But as soon as they arrived, there was an answer phone message telling them Holly had been rushed to hospital after she collapsed.

Enlarge   The Cleveland family plan to have a quiet Christmas to reduce the strain on Holly

The Cleveland family plan to have a quiet Christmas to reduce the strain on Holly

When Mrs Cleveland arrived at the hospital a nurse explained that Holly had not been breathing on arrival but had suddenly started again.

'My sister Nicola was in a terrible state. She thought Holly had died,' Holly's mother said.

'I broke down when I saw her on the hospital bed, her little sleep suit had been cut off ready for them to start resuscitation and she was linked to so many machines.’

At first the couple didn’t link it to Holly’s tantrums. But when a doctor asked if anything like it had happened before they explained about the breath holding.

The following day Holly was diagnosed with RAS.

‘I felt so guilty that I had unknowingly been putting her in situations that may have triggered an attack,' Mrs Cleveland said.

'All the time we thought she was being naughty but her brain was being starved of blood and her heart was stopping.’

The next morning at home Mrs Cleveland told her daughter off for not giving her toothbrush back and she collapsed and stopped breathing again, this time for even longer.

Back at hospital the family were warned that any extreme emotion would trigger a seizure and they were shown how to put their daughter into the recovery position.

There is no cure for the condition, which affects around eight in 1,000 children but it is not life-threatening and most children grow out of it.

Holly suffers on average one or two seizures a week.

‘It’s hard to predict what a two-year-old is going to get excited or angry about so we can’t always prevent them,' Mrs Cleveland said.

‘But they don’t get any easier. Every second she is not breathing is like an eternity to me.

‘I’m worried sick about Christmas because all the usual things that kids love about the day, from Santa to presents, sweets and games, will get her excited.

‘It’s a shame but we’re going to have to really tone down all the celebrations or wait until Holly has her nap for Ryan to open his presents because we don’t want her to stop breathing on Christmas Day.’