What to do if your child’s heart is beating abnormally fast or irregularly

A child's heart beating fast — palpitations or the sensation of an irregular heartbeat — can be caused by a number of conditions, not all of them serious.

A child whose heart is beating fast or irregularly often won’t have the vocabulary to describe what’s happening. They may describe vague chest symptoms, a fluttering or racing heart or skipped heartbeats. They may say, “My heart is beating out of my chest,” or “My heart is beeping.”

Toddlers may just grab their chest, appear uncomfortable or cry without an obvious cause, or just seem pale or upset. Little babies may be irritable for no reason, have trouble breathing, refuse to eat or vomit after eating.

Abnormal heart beats or arrhythmias can happen in children with a known history of heart disease, but also can occur in children previously thought to be healthy. Sometimes a child’s heart beating fast and causing palpitations may be due to other conditions not directly related to the heart, such as anxiety, fever, too much caffeine or a stimulant medication, exercise, low blood sugar, or anemia.

If your child has palpitations or abnormal heartbeats and doesn’t appear well, especially if the episode is persistent, seek medical attention immediately.

Norton Children’s Heart Institute

Norton Children’s Heart Institute, affiliated with the University of Louisville, has a long legacy of leading pediatric heart care. Children and families are at the core of our mission.

Call (502) 629-2929

If it doesn’t seem like an emergency, start with your pediatrician or other primary care provider. The provider likely will ask you for more details about the symptoms and do a thorough physical examination. If the provider suspects the palpitations possibly are caused by an underlying heart issue, you may be referred to a pediatric cardiologist or arrhythmia specialist.

To help the primary care provider or cardiologist sort out a child’s heart beating fast, consider these questions:

  • When was the first time the child’s heart beating fast or irregularly was noticed?
  • How often (for example, once a week or twice in six months, etc.) and for how long (for example, seconds, minutes or longer) do these episodes seem to last?
  • Are there certain circumstances when these symptoms usually occur (for example, only with a fever or prolonged exercise, or do they happen completely randomly)?
  • Do the palpitations start and then go away all of a sudden (like flipping a light switch), or do they seem to start out or ease off more gradually?
  • Have you or your child found any specific activity, such as bearing down or coughing, that seems to stop an episode?
  • Are there any other symptoms that occur around the same time, such as feeling dizzy or lightheaded, chest pain, trouble breathing, vomiting, headaches or fainting?