Child Breakpoints in Visual Studio

You often see in the breakpoints window that certain breakpoints are expandable:


These are called child breakpoints, and are a strong contender to the title of most poorly documented feature of VS.  According to MSDN, child breakpoints occur –

…when you set a breakpoint in a location such as an overloaded function…

…when you attach to more than  one instance of the same program.

And I’m not sure what they mean by either. AFAIK, a single debugger cannot attach to more than one instance of a program, and different overloads of the same functions reside in different code lines – so they cannot possibly count for child breakpoints.

It’s reasonable to assume that child breakpoints are generated whenever a breakpoint is set in a line of code  that is compiled into multiple binary locations. I’m aware of two such scenarios – but there may be more:

  1. Templated function/method instantiated with different arguments,
  2. A function in a static library linked into multiple executables (exe, dll) in a single solution.

Perhaps by ‘overloaded function’ MSDN means (1) and by ‘more than one instance of the same program’ they mean (2)?  I sure hope not.  Also, the ever generous John Robbins confirmed the 1st case by email.

It’s good to be aware of this feature because it does have debugging performance implications – In a large project such that I work on, setting a breakpoint in (e.g.) smart pointer code results in spreading INT 3 instructions in thousands of instantiations – occasionally causing full minutes of IDE stall. There are often better alternatives – maybe more on that in a future post.

To make things even more interesting, in VS2005 this feature was badly bugged: more often than not a breakpoint was split into children for no apparent reason. This seems to be fixed in VS2010.

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One Response to Child Breakpoints in Visual Studio

  1. Just a quick note, as I’ve just discovered your (very interesting) blog :
    You can attach the debugger to several applications !
    The attach menu entry is present, even when the debugger is already attached to a process.

    Actually, on some rare occasions, I even found it useful to debug some network code, attach the debugger to both the client and the server, and add some tracepoints to trace the network flow…

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