Do you have a child who snores or has trouble breathing during their sleep? While it’s normal to have brief pauses in breathing during sleep, kids who go through longer periods of not breathing might have children’s sleep apnea, or pediatric sleep apnea.
The American Sleep Apnea Association estimates that 1 to 4 percent of children suffer from sleep apnea, and many of these kids are between the ages of 2 and 8 years old. Possible signs of sleep apnea in kids are tossing and turning more in bed, mouth breathing when asleep, waking up frequently during the night or night sweats because of the effort it takes to breathe.
There are two kinds of sleep apnea. Central sleep apnea is less common, and happens when a person stops breathing because the brain doesn’t send signals to the muscles in the body that control breathing. Obstructive sleep apnea is a more common, serious condition, and is caused by something blocking the upper airway.
With obstructive sleep apnea, blockage of the airway can lead to snoring and prolonged pauses in breathing. It also causes drops in blood oxygen levels and disrupted sleep, because the breathing is slower and shallower.
Kids with sleep apnea might also sleep walk or sleep talk, be difficult to awaken, be excessively sleepy during the day, or be hyperactive and have behavior issues. Studies show that as many as 25 percent of children diagnosed with ADHD may actually have symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea. The learning difficulties and behavioral problems that these children experience may be a result of the fragmented sleep they get every night.
The most common reasons for children’s sleep apnea are enlarged tonsils and adenoids. Children with nasal issues like chronic allergies, a deviated septum or narrowing of the nose from birth might also experience airway obstruction. And children with decreased muscle tone, such as children with Down syndrome, or those who are overweight are also more likely to have sleep apnea.
The good news is that children’s sleep apnea is treatable. If your child has any of these symptoms, a careful examination of the nose, mouth and throat can reveal the source(s) of potential blockage. Your pediatrician might also recommend additional testing during the office visit or in a specialist setting, to determine how much blockage there is and if surgery would help improve your child’s sleep apnea.
Patrick Walz, MD, is a member of the Department of Otolaryngology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and is an assistant professor of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.
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