Sleep Apnea in Children: What You Need to Know

Many people have heard of the sleep disordered breathing condition called sleep apnea. We know to be aware that heavy snoring or fatigue after a full night’s sleep could be sleep apnea in an adult. But were you aware that children can also have a similar condition? Sleep apnea in children is very similar to the adult condition, but it has different causes, symptoms, and treatments.

If your children are anything like mine, adequate sleep is essential to keeping them well-rested and happy. Sleep apnea can interfere with sleep quality and can cause several other serious problems as well. Because of this, you should be aware of your child’s sleep habits, and if you notice anything going on, check with your doctor. Here are some of the things you need to know about sleep apnea and children.

What is Sleep Apnea?

There are three main types of apnea in children: obstructive, central, and mixed. Obstructive sleep apnea in children is one of the more common types, and it is caused by an obstruction in the child’s airway, such as enlarged adenoids or tonsils.

Central sleep apnea in children happens because the area of the brain that controls the breathing process doesn’t work properly, so breathing stops or doesn’t continue at a proper rate. This type of sleep apnea usually has a neurological cause is far less common than obstructive sleep apnea. Most cases of central sleep apnea happen in premature infants because the respiratory center of the brain has not developed fully yet.

Mixed sleep apnea is really a combination of the two other different types. This is usually seen in very young infants where the part of the brain that controls breathing is not fully developed. This condition is also pretty rare, especially in older children.

Can’t Tell if Your Child Has Sleep Apnea? Here are the Symptoms

One of the symptoms of sleep apnea is snoring. Many children – around 10% – snore at night. Of these, about 10% are snoring because of sleep apnea. If your child snores, you may want to speak to your health care provider, because this is the most common sign of apnea. Other symptoms include poor sleep and restlessness during sleep, difficulty breathing while sleeping, night sweats, and behavior problems during the day as a result of poor sleep at night. If you notice any of these symtpoms, call the doctor and have it checked out.

What Causes Sleep Apnea in Children?

If you suspect your child has sleep apnea, take them to see the doctor for a proper diagnoses.

What Are the Long Term Effects of Sleep Apnea in Children?

There are many side-effects of sleep apnea in children, and bed wetting is one of them. Sleep apnea can lead to an increased production of urine, which in turn can cause bed wetting. Older children can feel embarrassed and alarmed by bed wetting, not to mention the annoyance of changing bedding and clothing in the night.

Sleep apnea also creates a disturbance in the child’s sleep. This leads to a sleep deprivation that can cause all kinds of problems. Children who don’t get enough sleep can be moody and cranky, their performance in school can decrease, and their lack of energy can cause them to be less active. The decreased activity along with lack of sleep can contribute to weight gain and eventual obesity.

Lack of sleep can also contribute to serious medical problems such as stunting a child’s growth. Because growth hormones are generated during the night, sleep apnea can disrupt it, and a child may stop growing and developing properly. Studies are also showing that lack of proper sleep at night can be a contributing factor in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), otherwise known as ADD. Many of the long-term effects of sleep apnea are serious.

What Are the Treatments

Treatment for sleep apnea in children will depend on a number of factors. It starts with an evaluation by your pediatrician or a pediatric sleep specialist if you suspect that your child may have sleep apnea. After that, they can recommend a treatment that is based on the type of apnea, the underlying causes, and the age of the child.

There may be other underlying conditions that are contributing to sleep apnea. Although younger children do not have to be overweight in order to experience apnea, being overweight may be one of the causes. This means that weight loss would be an important tool for treating the apnea. Seasonal allergies is another condition that can be a cause of apnea. If your child has allergies, treating them will be an important strategy.

Because enlarged tonsils is usually a main cause of sleep apnea in children, one of the common treatments is a surgery that removes the adenoids and tonsils. Because surgery is serious and comes with risks and possible complications, you should discuss the pros and cons with your doctor. In simple cases, surgery takes care of the sleep apnea in between 70 to 90 percent of the cases.

For cases where surgery is not recommended or doesn’t take care of the problem, positive airway pressure therapy (PAP) can work. A PAP machine, like those used by adults, utilizes a Darth Vader-like mask that forces a person to keep breathing during the night. These machines only work, of course, if the person commits to using it properly and on a regular basis.

Listening to your child struggle to breathe at night can be scary. And there are potentially
serious side-effects if you ignore the problem. It’s better to be safe than sorry and get your child evaluated if you suspect a sleep disorder. Both you and your child will be able to sleep better once you know what is going on and seek a treatment.

About Holli Ronquillo

I'm a freelance writer, mom, wife, and sleep connoisseur (not necessarily in that order). When I'm not sleeping or chasing a toddler around, I'm usually writing or reading.