Sleep Apnea In Children

What you need to know about sleep apnea in children

Sleep apnea in children is alarming when they start gasping in between snores, or stop breathing often for longer periods. This could signal sleep apnea, which can have a detrimental effect on children’s health in the short-term and long-term. This is why it is important to recognise the signs, and have the problem treated right away.

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that affects the airway and the way people breathe during sleep. There are three types of sleep apnea - obstructive, central, and a combination of both obstructive and central. Children with sleep apnea is mostly obstructive, where something is blocking or obstructing the upper airway causing breathing to stop during sleep.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is common in both adults and children, but is highly likely for those with some conditions, such as obesity and Down Syndrome. 1 in 30 children, regardless of gender, may be affected by OSA. 

What causes sleep apnea in children?

Apnea is a Greek word that means without wind or breath, which also translates to insufficient air going down into the lungs. This usually happens in children with enlarged tonsils or adenoids. When they go to sleep and their muscles relax, including those in the throat, the relaxed muscles may cause narrowing of the airway, reducing airflow. If the throat is completely obstructed, a child could stop breathing temporarily. 

Who are at most risk of sleep apnea in children?

  • Children with enlarged tonsils or adenoids
  • A family history of OSA
  • Obesity
  • Down syndrome
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Defects in the mouth or throat structures that can narrow the airway
  • A large tongue that can fall back, blocking the airway during sleep

In rare cases, children with sleep apnea can be caused by craniofacial malformation, rare diseases of the nerves or muscles, extremely narrow upper airway, and difficulty in controlling breathing. 

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea in children?

  • Loud snoring on a regular basis
  • Breathing pauses or stops, resulting in sleep disruption
  • Gasping and snorting while sleeping
  • Feeling restless or sleeping in abnormal positions, particularly the position of the head
  • Heavy sweating during sleep

Because children with sleep apnea miss out on a healthy and restful sleep, they also manifest symptoms during the day.

  • Have difficulty waking up
  • Experience headaches during the day especially in the morning
  • Feel abnormally sleepy during the day and may actually fall asleep
  • Experience school, behavioural and social problems
  • Feel agitated, irritable, cranky and aggressive
  • Speak with a nasal voice
  • Breathe through the mouth regularly, instead of through the nose

What are the treatments for children with sleep apnea?

Correction of the airway
Children may have an appointment with an ENT surgeon to determine if an operation can correct any problems with the airway.

Use of nasal prongs
These are plastic tubes that are inserted into the nostrils to keep the airway open. This will help children breathe at night. 

Use of CPAP
Continuous Positive Airway Pressure or CPAP is a breathing aid that delivers continuous airflow via a mask. This helps maintain the airway and helps a child breathe at night.  


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