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How Do I Know If My Child Has Sleep Apnea?

July 21, 2021 11:43 am

Many people are familiar with adult sleep apnea and its symptoms, but are you aware that children can have this sleep disturbance too? Some of the same symptoms are evident with obstructive sleep apnea in children, but there are differences in the presentation and treatment for obstructive sleep apnea in children depending on the child’s age.

Pediatric OSA Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA, happens when a child has a limitation in their breathing momentarily while sleeping. It can happen many times during the night. This is more often due to an obstruction in the upper airway which are the passages through the nose and mouth to the windpipe and lungs.

little boy sleeps with his mouth open.

When this occurs, oxygen levels fall causing sleep to be disrupted.

The presentation of sleep apnea in adults can be different than in children. Adults tend to be sleepy during the day, whereas children can have behavioral problems and hyperactivity instead of daytime sleepiness. The most common cause for adults is obesity and with children it is enlarged tonsils or adenoids.

Common Risk Factors

During sleep, our muscles relax, including those in our throat, which help to keep the airway open. When a child has sleep apnea, those muscles can relax too much and collapse the airway.

There are some risk factors which are common with OSA:

  • A family history of obstructive sleep apnea
  • A child who is overweight
  • A child with Down Syndrome or Cerebral Palsy
  • Having an unusually large tongue
  • Any problems that can narrow the airway like in the throat, jaw, or mouth
  • A child with enlarged tonsils or adenoids

Enlarged tonsils or adenoids obstruct the airway if the muscles become too relaxed during sleep.

Signs of OSA in Children

Snoring is a common sign, but not all children will have this symptom. However, you may hear gasps or snorts. Bedwetting, sleepwalking, and night terrors can be seen normally but can also be signs of a child with sleep apnea.

Daytime sleepiness or hyperactivity, irritability, and mouth breathing are common signs. Children may also begin to have trouble in school and develop morning headaches. A child with sleep apnea may be misdiagnosed as having learning disabilities due to this.

Childhood obstructive sleep apnea has been associated with failure to thrive, neurocognitive impairment, hypertension, cardiac dysfunction, systemic inflammation, and behavioral problems.

What Should a Parent Do?

If you suspect your child may have obstructive sleep apnea, see the Pediatric and Adolescent Sleep Center for an evaluation. A sleep study may be recommended for a definitive diagnosis. If the symptoms are mild, a wait and see approach may be taken.

A sleep study can give insight into if your child needs to have their tonsils or adenoids removed. This will usually improve the severity of OSA or may resolve OSA, especially if they are enlarged.

DO work with your physician to change diet and increase exercise if your child is overweight.

DO initiate CPAP therapy to continuously provide positive airway pressure during sleep if recommended. The mask provides a steady stream of air to keep the airway open.

One thing you should NOT DO is ignore the condition. Untreated sleep apnea can lead to learning, behavioral, and growth problems. Chronic sleep apnea can cause long term negative effects.

Contact the Pediatric and Adolescent Sleep Center at (703) 226-2290 to schedule an appointment if you suspect your child may be having symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea.

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