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Sleep Apnea in Infants: What You Need to Know

Published February 11th, 2022 by Chris Riley
Fact Checked by
Jacqueline Hensler
Medically Reviewed:
Erik Rivera

Sleep apnea in infants is a sleep disorder that affects a baby's breathing and anyone at any age can suffer from it. It causes you to stop breathing for short periods of time during sleep due to the upper airway being blocked. Children with sleep apnea can also develop other health problems, so it is important to be aware of the symptoms and risk factors. In this article, we will discuss sleep apnea in infants and what you need to know about it.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes breathing to stop and start repeatedly during sleep. This can lead to disrupted sleep, which can affect your overall health and increase your risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. Sleep apnea is more common in men and in adults, especially in older adults, but it can also occur in infants and women too. When you have sleep apnea, an upper airway obstruction causes your rest to constantly be interrupted. The blockage of the airway during sleep is usually caused by the collapse of soft tissue in the throat or nose and is characterized by pauses in breathing, which can last several seconds to minutes and occur up to dozens or hundreds of times a night. The pauses are called "apneic episodes" or "apnea."

There are three types of sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA, is when your throat muscles relax and block your airway. Central sleep apnea, or CSA, occurs when the brain fails to send signals to the muscles that control breathing, causing a pause in breathing during sleep. Complex sleep apnea syndrome is a combination of obstructive apnea and central apnea that can occur together or separately during sleep and can also be called mixed sleep apnea or MSA.

Pediatric sleep apnea is less common than sleep apnea in adults, but sleep apnea can affect infants. It is important to be aware of the symptoms in babies with sleep apnea so you know when to talk with your medical professional about sleep apnea treatment options for infants.

sleep apnea baby

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea in infants?

The most common symptom of sleep apnea in infants is loud snoring. Infants should not snore so if you repeatedly hear your child snoring during sleep then you should tell your doctor. Other symptoms include pauses in breathing, restless sleep, and choking or gasping for air. Sleep apnea in children may also cause low oxygen levels and a slow heartbeat which is known as bradycardia. Due to low oxygen levels, your child may also experience a bluish tint on the mouth, lips, and skin.

What are the risk factors for sleep apnea in infants?

There are several risk factors for sleep apnea in infants. Some of these risk factors are out of your control, such as a family history of sleep apnea or being born prematurely. Apnea due to prematurity is the number one risk factor in infants, and the lower the birth weight of the premature baby the more likely they are to develop it. Sleep apnea is very rare in full term infants. However, there are some risk factors that you can control such as obesity and exposure to secondhand smoke. Other medical problems can also cause or put your child at risk for sleep apnea including:

  • Acid reflux
  • Anemia
  • Anesthesia
  • Drugs
  • Infection
  • Lung disease
  • Metabolic disorders
  • Neurological problems
  • Seizures
  • Small upper airway
  • Brain injury
  • Brain tumors
  • Craniofacial syndromes, or syndromes that are caused by congenital birth defects to the bones of the head and face such as Down syndrome and Pierre Robin sequence
  • Excess soft tissue in the back of the throat
  • Large adenoids

These are some of the medical conditions that can lead to sleep apnea in infants. It should be noted that doctors are not always able to diagnose a cause for it.

How do doctors diagnose sleep apnea in infants?

If you believe your child is suffering from sleep apnea your doctor will probably first perform a physical examination. If there is no known cause for intermittent breathing, then the only way to diagnose sleep apnea in infants involves a sleep study called polysomnography. Polysomnography is a test that records your baby's sleep patterns and breathing. During the overnight sleep study, electrodes will be placed on your child's head, chest, and legs to track brain waves, heart rate, blood oxygen levels, airflow through the nose and mouth, and snoring. The sleep study will also measure how long it takes your baby to sleep and how long they sleep.

The sleep study may take place at a sleep center or hospital, depending on the severity of your child's sleep apnea, and will be conducted overnight by a sleep specialist. Your doctor will prescribe this test if they suspect sleep apnea due to the symptoms you describe. If you choose a sleep lab to perform the test, make sure it is accredited for children. An infant's results can be interpreted differently from an adult so it is important to find a sleep center that has expertise in your child's needs.

What are the treatments for sleep apnea in infants?

If your child is diagnosed with sleep apnea, there are a few different treatment options that your doctor may recommend. For infants, the most common treatment option is supplemental oxygen. A doctor may recommend that your child wear a nasal cannula which is the tube apparatus that delivers constant oxygen to the nasal passages when your child is sleeping or possibly even when they are awake. The most common option for adults with sleep apnea is a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which is a sleep apnea treatment that involves using a machine and wearing a mask to push air through the nose and mouth. These can also be used on infants but are usually not the first choice. Another rarer sleep apnea treatment option for infants is surgery such as adenotonsillectomy, which is surgery to remove the tonsils and adenoids. Lastly, if your child was born prematurely it is possible that as they grow the sleep apnea will go away. Sleep apnea treatments do not always work due to the many different causes of sleep apnea in infants.

Summary

Sleep apnea in infants is a condition that affects their sleep and breathing pattern. It can be caused by many different medical conditions, some of which are controllable and others that are not. The only way to diagnose sleep apnea in an infant is through a sleep study called polysomnography, which measures brain waves, heart rate, blood oxygen levels, airflow through the nose and mouth, and snoring and is usually conducted overnight at a sleep center or hospital. If your child is diagnosed with sleep apnea, there are a few different treatment options that your doctor may recommend, the most common of which is supplemental oxygen. Surgery is also an option but is only performed in rare cases. Sleep apnea in infants can be a serious condition and should be monitored by a doctor for the most effective treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about sleep apnea for infants please talk to your pediatrician or healthcare provider.

References and Sources:

Mayo Clinic

KidsHealth

Cedars Sinai 

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