Pediatric Sleep Apnea: Recognizing Signs and Seeking Timely Intervention

A child resting in her bed.

In the United States, between 1% and 5% of children experience sleep apnea. This condition causes disruptions to your child’s breathing, leading to interrupted sleep. If your child is not sleeping well, they may have sleep apnea. Learn more about the condition, how to recognize it, and what to do if your child has it.

What Is Pediatric Sleep Apnea?

Pediatric sleep apnea is a sleeping disorder that causes your child to momentarily stop breathing, potentially leading to pediatric pulmonology issues. When the brain senses that the body is not getting enough oxygen, it wakes the child up so they can take a breath. These interruptions are brief, but they affect your child’s sleeping patterns.

There are two types of pediatric sleep apnea: central sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea. Of the two, obstructive sleep apnea is the most common.

Central sleep apnea occurs most often in infants younger than 12 months. It happens when the baby’s brain has trouble communicating with the muscles that control breathing.

In children older than 12 months, obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type of sleep apnea. It happens when something blocks the airway. Some of the causes of obstructive sleep apnea are enlarged tonsils and adenoids. Childhood obesity is also a factor.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea in Children

  • The most common symptom of pediatric sleep apnea is snoring. Children are not supposed to snore, so getting them to a doctor can be important if you notice your child doing so. You may also hear abrupt moments of silence between loud snores. Other symptoms include:
  • Coughing
  • Choking
  • Breathing through the mouth while sleeping
  • Sleep terrors
  • Night sweats
  • Frequent illnesses
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Bedwetting

You may notice your child is in an irritable mood during the day. They may even have trouble controlling their emotions. Your child may also experience frequent headaches and could display behavioral problems.

Effects of Sleep Apnea on Children

Sleep apnea can seriously affect a developing child’s body and brain. Although you may only notice mood changes and irritability, this can lead to issues at school. Not being able to concentrate can cause issues with learning.

Sleep apnea affects pulmonary health as well. It can lead to a reduced amount of oxygen entering the lungs, which, over a long period, can cause heart and lung damage. Inadequate levels of oxygen often cause stunted mental development and physical growth.

Treating Pediatric Sleep Apnea

The first step is usually for a pediatric pulmonology expert or a pediatrician to identify the kind of sleep apnea your child has. In most cases, it will be obstructive sleep apnea. This leads your child’s doctor to understand what type of obstruction is causing the problem.

If your child has enlarged tonsils or adenoids, surgery may be necessary to remove them. The same applies if your child has any structural abnormalities in their airways.

Obesity can cause obstructive sleep apnea. If your child is overweight, you must place them on a healthier diet and an exercise plan that suits your child’s needs. A pediatrician or dietician can do this.

For some children, the best option is a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) mask. This mask goes over their mouth and nose as they sleep and blows air through the nose and into the lungs, which ensures a constant supply of oxygen. A pediatric pulmonology expert or respiratory therapist will help with its proper use.

In children with milder sleep apnea, allergy medications, steroid sprays, and even saline rinses can help reduce inflammation and make breathing easier. These options usually work best when combined with other treatments.

A firm mattress may also be an important tool in combating pediatric sleep apnea. A firm mattress may reduce pressure on the chest while your child sleeps. Slightly elevating your child’s head while they sleep could also help.

Pediatric Pulmonology: Helping Your Child Sleep Better

Sleep apnea can seriously impact your child’s development and overall well-being. If you notice any signs that your child may be struggling to breathe as they sleep, the best thing you can do is turn to the pediatric pulmonology experts at Newport Children’s Medical Group. Contact us today to learn more.