Understanding sleep apnea in children

Understanding sleep apnea in children

Does your child snore loudly and frequently, sleep in unusual positions and have problems paying attention in school? If so, you may want to talk to your pediatrician about sleep apnea. This condition is caused by a partial or complete obstruction of the upper airway that briefly stops breathing during sleep, interrupting your child’s rest.

About 2 to 4 percent of children experience sleep apnea before puberty; about 5 percent experience sleep apnea in adolescence. Here is what you need to know so you and your child can rest well.

Causes and symptoms of sleep apnea in children

A facial or upper airway abnormality can cause sleep apnea in babies. As children grow, their tonsils and adenoids (masses of tissue in the nasal cavity that help fight off infections) also grow, peaking in size between ages 2 and 6. These enlarged tissues can cause breathing difficulty. Sleep apnea can affect adolescents, particularly if the child is obese.

As a parent, you may observe the following symptoms in your child:

  • Loud or frequent snoring, often with pauses, snorts or gasps
  • Heavy breathing while sleeping
  • Restless sleep and sleeping in unusual positions
  • Bedwetting – especially if child previously stayed dry at night
  • Daytime sleepiness (falls asleep in class or while watching TV; requires regular naps of longer than 30 minutes)
  • Hyperactivity or an inability to pay attention
  • Excessive sweating during sleep

In severe cases, sleep apnea can lead to growth and heart problems. This is why receiving the proper tests and treatments is important.

Tests and treatments for children

To diagnose sleep apnea, your pediatrician will ask about your child’s sleep habits and symptoms. The doctor may order a sleep study, or polysomnogram, to monitor your child overnight in a sleep lab. In the study, sensors wired to a computer are placed on a few spots on the body to provide a detailed record of:

    • Breathing patterns
    • Oxygen and carbon dioxide levels
    • Eye movements
    • Heart rate
    • Brain waves
    • Snoring
    • Body movements
    • Sleep positions

Treatments depend on the cause of sleep apnea. Your doctor may prescribe one or more of the following:

  • Lifestyle modifications such as a healthy diet and exercise to help with weight loss
  • An oral appliance similar to a mouth guard to help keep the airway open
  • Wearing a mask that keeps the airway open through continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP
  • Surgery to remove enlarged tonsils or adenoids
  • Medications to treat conditions that aggravate sleep apnea, such as allergies, asthma or gastroesophageal reflux disease

If you’re concerned that your child may have sleep apnea, please contact UCLA Health’s Division of Pediatric Pulmonology at (310) 825-0867.

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