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Sleep apnea is a common disorder that affects children as well as adults. In children, it can have serious implications.
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common type of sleep apnea in children and occurs when the soft tissue at the back of the throat collapses during sleep. The airway becomes blocked, causing breathing to stop for a moment or two, and then start again with a gasp.
These episodes of no breathing are called oxygen desaturation events because they reduce the amount of oxygen in the blood stream. They are also known as hypopneic events and can be detected on an overnight diagnostic test called a polysomnogram, which has different names depending on the age of the patient: one such example is a kid-PSG. To get an idea if your child has sleep apnea, try the quiz at the top of the page.
Does your child have sleep apnea: The signs
There are no specific signs of sleep apnea that are unique to children. As with adults, the signs and symptoms of sleep apnea are related to the number and severity of episodes of no breathing.
A child with sleep apnea may have one or more of the following symptoms:
- Frequent waking to urinate - Because of their smaller bladder size, children may need to urinate more frequently than adults. However, frequent urination that continues even with a full bladder could be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea.
- Excessive daytime sleepiness - Parents may notice that their child is tired throughout the day and struggles to concentrate during school. Children with moderate to severe sleep apnea are often sleepy enough to fall asleep during the day even if they do not have an opportunity to nap.
- Changes in behavior - Sleep apnea may cause irritability, poor concentration or hyperactivity.
- Snoring - Sleep apnea is associated with loud snoring, which may be worse when the child is lying on his or her back.
- Obstructive sleep apnea in children may also cause problems with the teeth and jaw.
The importance of recognizing the signs of sleep apnea in children
If left untreated, sleep apnea can cause serious problems including learning problems, weight gain, diabetes and even heart disease. The effect on a child’s development and long term health is much greater than in adults. - Kids who have sleep apnea are at risk for other health problems such as obesity, blood pressure abnormalities, and an increased risk for heart disease. In fact, the risk for heart disease is 150 times greater for children with sleep apnea than those who don’t have the disorder. - Sleep apnea can affect a child’s mood, behavior, and school performance. Sleepiness can lead to attention problems and hyperactivity.
The quiz to see if your child has sleep apnea can be tried at the top of the page to give you an idea.
Kids with sleep apnea may also experience headaches and depression. - Sleep apnea can also cause sleep deprivation and can lead to health issues such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart problems. It can also affect growth and puberty in adolescents. - Sleep apnea can lead to an emotional rollercoaster for parents, too. It can cause significant stress in the household and strain on the entire family.
Causes of obstructive sleep apnea in children
Most children with sleep apnea have enlarged tonsils and adenoids, which are the lymphoid tissue that is related to the immune system. They can become swollen and obstruct the airway. The tongue can also collapse and obstruct the airway. The back of the throat can be narrowed by a cyst or other growth, or by a retrognathia (where the jaw does not fully develop at the back). Other causes include obesity and dental problems.
Treatment options for children with sleep apnea
Treatment for sleep apnea depends on the underlying cause. For example, if the tongue is obstructing the airway, a dentist may be able to perform a tongue tie procedure to help release the tongue. If enlarged tonsils and adenoids are obstructing the airway, surgery may be required to remove them.
Certain steps can be taken to improve sleep quality and help prevent sleep apnea in children. When selecting a sleeping place, avoid using soft pillows and blankets. Instead, use a firm pillow and a blanket that is lightweight and thin. Keep rooms cool and free from noise. Be mindful about your child’s daily activities. Avoid excessive napping and other activities that can make them tired and less able to sleep well.
Sleep apnea can have serious consequences for children. If left untreated, it can cause learning problems, poor concentration, weight gain, and even heart disease.
The first step towards reducing the risk of sleep apnea is recognizing the signs, and then addressing any underlying issues. There are many things parents can do to improve sleep quality and prevent sleep apnea in children.
When selecting a sleeping place, avoid using soft pillows and blankets. Instead, use a firm pillow and a blanket that is lightweight and thin. Keep rooms cool and free from noise. There are a lot of things that can put a child at risk for sleep apnea. But you can help your child avoid these complications by being aware of the signs of sleep apnea, and how to prevent it.