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Sleep Apnea in Children: What You Need to Know

Published January 28th, 2022 by Erik Rivera
Fact Checked by
Jacqueline Hensler
Medically Reviewed:
Chris Riley

Sleep Apnea 101 | Symptoms in Children | Causes | Risk Factors | Diagnosis | Treatment

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that affects many people, both adults and children.

For children and adults, sleep apnea can cause problems such as difficulty breathing during sleep, snoring, and poor sleep quality.

It can also lead to other health problems such as obesity and heart disease.

If you think your child may have sleep apnea, it is important to get your child diagnosed and treated as soon as possible.

In this article, we will discuss all you need to know about sleep apnea in children.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes breathing to stop and start repeatedly during sleep. It can cause problems such as snoring, restless sleep, and daytime sleepiness.

Sleep apnea is more common in adults, but it can also occur in children, too, which is called pediatric sleep apnea.

There are three kinds of sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea syndrome (OSA), central sleep apnea syndrome (CSA), and mixed sleep apnea syndrome (MSA).

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type in adults and children with sleep apnea.

When you have obstructive sleep apnea, there is an upper airway obstruction and it becomes blocked or narrowed, causing you to stop breathing.

Central sleep apnea is a less common type of sleep apnea that occurs when the brain fails to send the correct signals to control breathing. Mixed sleep apnea is a combination of obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea can cause health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. It can also cause problems in children such as poor sleep quality, difficulty paying attention in school, and behavioral problems.

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea in children?

The symptoms of sleep apnea in children may vary depending on the type of sleep apnea.

However, common symptoms of sleep apnea for any person of any age includes snoring, restless sleep, and excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS).

Loud snoring can occur with obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.

However, it is more likely with obstructive sleep apnea. Other symptoms for both types of sleep apnea include:

  • Choking or coughing while you sleep
  • Pauses in breathing patterns
  • Nightmares or sleep terrors
  • Falling asleep in odd positions
  • Bedwetting
  • Mouth breathing

What causes sleep apnea in children?

There are many different causes of childhood sleep apnea.

Some common causes of sleep apnea in children include enlarged tonsils or adenoids, obesity, structural problems with the airway, sleep-related breathing disorders such as upper airway resistance syndrome (UARS), and neuromuscular disease.

sleep apnea in children

What are some risk factors for sleep apnea in children?

There are many different risk factors for sleep apnea in children. Some common risk factors include:

  • Obesity
  • Family medical history of sleep apnea
  • Down syndrome
  • Structural abnormalities in the skull and face or congenital anomalies
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Large tongue

If your child is suffering from the rarer form of central sleep apnea there are some risk factors that are unique to this type and they include:

  • Certain medical conditions that affect the heart, brainstem, or spinal cord such as a brain injury
  • Medications have also been known to contribute to central sleep apnea in children

How do doctors diagnose sleep apnea?

There are many different ways that doctors can diagnose sleep apnea in children.

The most common way to diagnose sleep apnea is by doing a sleep study.

These overnight sleep studies are when your child spends the night at a sleep laboratory and your child's breathing and heart rate are monitored while they sleep.

This is also called polysomnography. Another method doctors use is oximetry, or an oxygen level test.

These tests can be performed from your home and may help your child avoid having to do a sleep test.

An electrocardiogram can also be used which will measure the electrical impulses from your child's heart and will help determine if there is a heart issue that may be the underlying cause.

How do you treat sleep apnea in children?

There is no one treatment that is perfect for sleep apnea in children.

Treatment options vary depending on the cause of your child's sleep apnea and may include:

Surgery to remove enlarged tonsils or adenoids

Your tonsils are two small lumps of tissue located on the back of your throat. Adenoids are three small lumps of tissue that are also located in the back of your throat, just behind your tonsils.

Tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy are surgeries to remove these tissues from your child's throat to help free the airway for a night of better sleep.

CPAP and other airway pressure therapies

CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure, machines are one of the most common treatment therapies for children with sleep apnea.

This therapy involves using a machine to help keep your child's airway open while they sleep.

The CPAP machine will pump a pressurized flow of air through a mask worn while sleeping into your child's nose which will help to keep their throat open and reduce the number of apnea episodes they may have.

There are other airway machines too including BiPAP, which stands for bilevel positive airway pressure and provides different air pressures when your child breathes in and out, and an APAP, or automatic positive airway pressure, which adjusts the air pressure level as needed.

Medications

There are a few different medications that your doctor may prescribe for sleep apnea in your child.

These medications can help to open up your child's airway while sleeping and include nasal steroids, which include Flonase and other drugs containing fluticasone or budesonide, and allergy medicines if your child has allergies.

Oral appliances

If your child's sleep apnea is caused by a structural problem with their airways, such as an enlarged tonsil or adenoid, then your doctor may prescribe an oral appliance.

Oral appliances are devices that help keep your child's mouth and jaw in the correct position while they sleep which can help to open up their airway.

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Apnea alarm

An apnea alarm is a device that your doctor may also prescribe for sleep apnea in children.

This device is worn while your child sleeps and will sound an alarm if your child's breathing stops for more than 20 seconds.

What can I do to help prevent sleep apnea in my child?

There are some things that you can do at home to help reduce your child's risk of developing sleep apnea and they include:

  • Making sure that your child maintains a healthy weight and is not obese by giving them a healthy diet and regular exercise to prevent childhood obesity. 
  • Avoiding all allergens and irritants that could cause your child to have difficulty breathing or respiratory events, including tobacco smoke.

Not all sleep apneas can be avoided, especially central sleep apnea, but doing these simple things will help ensure that your child has the best chance of improving it.

If your child is already obese, weight loss through a healthy diet and exercise may help. 

Summary

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes your child to stop breathing during sleep.

There are different types of sleep apnea, but the most common type in children is obstructive sleep apnea.

Childhood obstructive sleep apnea is caused when something blocks or restricts your child's airway while sleeping.

This can be caused by anything from enlarged tonsils or adenoids to obesity, among other causes.

Effective treatment for sleep apnea in children varies depending on the cause of the sleep apnea but may include surgical removal of the tonsils or adenoids, CPAP therapy, medications, oral appliances, or an apnea alarm.

There are also things that you can do at home to help reduce your child's risk of developing sleep apnea such as ensuring they eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly as obese children are more likely to suffer from sleep apnea.

If you have any further questions please talk to your doctor, sleep specialist, or medical professional.

References and Sources:

Mayo Clinic 

KidsHealth

Sleep Foundation 

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