What is sleep apnea in children?

Sleep Apnea in Children

Sleep apnea in children: Overview

Sleep apnea means that your child stops breathing during sleep. It can be mild to severe, based on the number of times an hour that it happens. In general, most experts say that if a child stops breathing 1 to 5 times an hour, they may have mild sleep apnea. Moderate sleep apnea means breathing stops 5 to 10 times an hour. With severe sleep apnea, a child stops breathing 10 or more times an hour.

It's called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) when blocked or narrowed airways in the nose, mouth, or throat keep a child from getting normal airflow. Being overweight or having swollen tonsils or adenoids are common causes of sleep apnea. Your child's airway also can be blocked when the throat muscles and tongue relax during sleep.

Your child may have symptoms such as:

  • Snoring (sometimes with pauses in breathing).
  • Tossing and turning during sleep.
  • Feeling sleepy during the day.
  • Wetting the bed.
  • Having headaches.
  • Having trouble paying attention.
  • Having behavioral problems.

The doctor will give your child a physical exam. Your doctor may suggest sleep tests to find out if your child has sleep apnea.

Surgery to remove the tonsils and adenoids is a common treatment for sleep apnea. In some cases, lifestyle changes can help treat the problem. For children who are overweight, weight loss can help. Sleep apnea may also be treated at home using a machine that helps keep tissues in the throat from blocking the airway.

If sleeping on their back makes your child's sleep apnea worse, or if other treatments don't work, your doctor may suggest devices that help change your child's sleeping position.

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea in children?

Children who have sleep apnea nearly always snore. But unlike adults with sleep apnea, they may not seem very sleepy during the day.

In younger children, other symptoms include:

  • Mouth breathing.
  • Sweating.
  • Feeling restless.
  • Waking up a lot.

In older children, other symptoms may also include:

  • Bed wetting.
  • Doing poorly in school.
  • Behavior problems.
  • A short attention span.
  • Not growing as quickly as they should for their age. This may be the only symptom in some children.

In rare cases, sleep apnea in children can cause developmental delays and failure of the right side of the heart (cor pulmonale).

How is sleep apnea in children treated?

Children have most of the same treatment options as adults.

  • Enlarged tonsils or adenoids are a common cause of sleep apnea in children. Surgery to remove them is usually the first treatment.
  • If surgery isn't possible or you'd like to try nonsurgical options, children may be treated with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). This device delivers air through a mask to help keep your child's airways open during sleep.
  • A bilevel positive airway pressure machine (BPAP) works like CPAP. It's sometimes called BiPAP. It uses different air pressures when your child breathes in and out.
  • Your child may also get a corticosteroid or saline spray. These are given through the nose.
  • In some cases, getting a dental device that widens the mouth can help.
  • If your child is overweight, your doctor may use a plan to help with weight loss. The treatment plan may include nutrition and activity programs. It may also include counseling.

How is sleep apnea in children diagnosed?

To diagnose sleep apnea, the doctor will gather information about your child's symptoms and general health.

  • During a routine checkup, your doctor will ask you and your child about snoring. If your child snores, be sure to tell your doctor.
  • A complete sleep study usually is needed to find out if your child has sleep apnea and isn't just snoring.
  • Children may need to see a specialist if they have sleep apnea.

How can you care for your child who has sleep apnea?

Do not smoke around your child. Smoke can make sleep apnea worse. Treat breathing problems, such as a stuffy nose, that are caused by a cold or allergies. Help your child stay at a healthy weight. Choose healthy foods for meals, and encourage daily exercise.

What is sleep apnea in children?

Sleep apnea means that breathing stops for short periods during sleep. When your child stops breathing or has reduced airflow into the lungs during sleep, your child doesn't sleep well and can be very tired during the day. The oxygen levels in the blood may go down, and carbon dioxide levels go up. This may lead to other problems.

Sleep apnea can range from mild to severe, based on how many times in an hour that your child stops breathing while sleeping.

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type. It most often occurs because your child's airways are blocked or partly blocked. Large tonsils or adenoids, or obesity, can cause this type.

Central sleep apnea is less common in children. It can occur in children who have a central nervous system problem, such as a brain tumor or epilepsy.

Some children have both types. That's called complex sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea in children: When to call

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • Your child does not get better as expected.
  • Your child has new or worse symptoms of sleep apnea. These may include snoring, feeling sleepy during the day, headaches, or trouble paying attention.
  • Your child is still sleepy during the day, and it affects their daily life.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.