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Sleep Apnea in Children: Should You Be Worried?

Sleep apnea in children is much more common than most people realize and can lead to many different developmental and behavioral problems. However, the problem is that it can be much harder to diagnose sleep apnea in children than it is in adults, so often the problem goes untreated.

If your child snores frequently or excessively, or shows signs of the other symptoms found below, then you should consider making an appointment with a pediatric ear, nose, and throat doctor to determine whether or not your child’s snoring is a result of pediatric sleep apnea. 

In general, frequent or excessive snoring is the most common symptom of sleep apnea in children and in adults. However, unlike adults who frequently wake up due to their sleep apnea, children normally sleep right through the night, so it can be harder to diagnose. 

Still, there are a few signs and symptoms to be on the lookout for, and if your child shows any of these symptoms, you should immediately make an appointment with your pediatrician to see if they could be caused by pediatric sleep apnea.

Some of the most common symptoms of sleep apnea in children are:

  • Enlarged tonsils or adenoids
  • Weight loss or failure to gain weight
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Breathing through their mouth while sleeping
  • Difficulty falling asleep or overly restless sleep
  • Excessive sweating during sleep
  • Frequent nightmares and even night terrors
  • Morning headaches and confusion when waking up
  • Depressing thoughts or feelings
  • Mood swings
  • Bedwetting
  • Chest retraction while sleeping (chest being constantly sucked in)

While sleep apnea in both adults and children leads to excessive daytime sleepiness, fatigue manifests in different ways in children. Instead of being tired or sleepy, excessive fatigue may actually make them hyper active and cause them to have difficulties concentrating on even the simplest tasks. 


In fact, many children with sleep apnea are actually incorrectly diagnosed as having ADD or ADHD, when it is actually excessive fatigue due to sleep apnea that causes their behavioral problems. 


However, a lot of research has been done in this area, and more and more doctors are starting to realize the direct link between sleep apnea and hyperactivity, aggressive behavior, and other cognitive and behavioral problems.

Diagnosing Sleep Apnea in Children

Only a pediatric ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor will be able to properly diagnose your child with sleep apnea. The most reliable diagnostic measure is to look for enlarged adenoids and tonsils. However, in some cases it may also be necessary for your child to spend a night at a sleep clinic to undergo a polysomnogram or sleep study. 

Problems Associated with Childhood Sleep Apnea

In addition to causing behavioral problems and excessive tiredness, sleep apnea can also cause several other problems in children, including slowing or inhibiting their growth and development, which is why it is so important that it is diagnosed and treated. Children with sleep apnea are also at a much higher risk for having severe headaches, as well as heart and lung problems.

Treatment Options for Pediatric Sleep Apnea

sleep apnea in childrenWhile surgery is not typically used to treat sleep apnea in adults, it is actually a quite common treatment option for children with sleep apnea. Often surgically removing the tonsils and adenoids will completely take care of the problem. 

It may also be the case that your child has nasal polyps which are causing a blockage of the nasal passage, and in this case there is another simple surgical procedure to scrape out and remove the polyps which should help. Another common treatment is the use of nasal steroids to help clear up any blockages of the nasal passages.

Maybe your child has a deviated septum which is causing their sleep apnea, and in this case a rhinoplasty can be performed to repair the deviated septum and cure their sleeping disorder.

If your child is diagnosed as having severe sleep apnea, it may be necessary for them to use a CPAP machine which forces air into their lungs while sleeping. While this can be quite daunting, most children are easily adaptable and are able to quickly get used to using a CPAP machine. 

If your doctor determines that CPAP is necessary to treat your child’s sleep apnea, then it will normally be covered by your insurance, which will contract with a home health company that will provide you with the CPAP machine and all of the necessary equipment and accessories. 

sleep apnea in childrenThis company will come to your home to set up the machine and instruct you on exactly how it should be used, maintained, and cleaned.

Still, this is much better than the treatment options for childhood sleep apnea that were available in the past. In fact, as late as the 1980’s, the only treatment option available for children with sleep apnea was to undergo a tracheotomy, where a small hole was punctured in the throat to allow the child to breathe through this hole while sleeping. Luckily, this procedure is very rarely performed nowadays, and only in very extreme cases where the child’s health and well-being are at stake.

Which Children Have the Highest Risk for Developing Sleep Apnea?

Almost any child can develop sleep apnea, although it is much more common in children with frequent allergies or other breathing problems. As stated earlier, children who are born with a genetic abnormality such as a deviated septum or overly small jaw are also at a much higher risk of developing the condition.

Still, the biggest group at risk for childhood sleep apnea is children who are born with Down’s syndrome. If you have a child with Down’s syndrome, you should always closely monitor their sleeping patterns to ensure that they remain normal. 

Other groups include children born with other medical issues such as facial abnormalities such as Treacher Collins Syndrome, Pierre Robin sequence, and Crouzon syndrome, as well as children with neuromuscular and central nervous system disorders and abnormalities.

Useful Links:

The website Healthy Children has many more tips and articles on how to make sure that your child receives plenty of sleep: from how to select the best crib to sleeping positions and even an article on sleep apnea. Be sure to check out this valuable resource.

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