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Sleep Apnea in Children

Sleep apnea is an interruption of breathing during sleep. Though we often think of sleep apnea as a problem experienced by adults, it is also common in children. Disruptive sleep is not healthy for a child. It can lead to problems when a child is awake. Furthermore, while there is a possibility that affected children will “grow out of” their sleep disorders, the evidence is steadily growing that untreated pediatric sleep disorders, including sleep apnea can wreak a heavy toll.

Studies have suggested that as many as 25 percent of children diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder may actually have symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea and that much of their learning difficulty and behavior problems can be the consequence of chronic fragmented sleep. Some researchers have charted a specific impact of sleep disordered breathing on “executive functions” of the brain: cognitive flexibility, self-monitoring, planning, organization, and self-regulation of affect and arousal.


Sleep apnea in children is caused by a blockage of the airways. This often occurs because of enlarged tonsils and adenoids. The adenoids are a mass of lymphatic tissue at the back of the nasal cavity. Sleep apnea is more common in children who are overweight. Other risk factors include having a small jaw or facial deformity, muscle weakness, and Down syndrome.


A child who has sleep apnea may experience these symptoms:

1. Loud Snoring

2. Interrupted Breathing (long pauses in breathing)

3. Feeling Tired During the Day (attention problems during the day)

4. Insomnia

5. Hormonal and Metabolic Problems

6. Dry Mouth (mouth breathing)

7. Nighttime Urination (bed-wetting)

8. Restless Sleep (tossing and turning)

9. Sleep Walking

10.Failure to Thrive


There are several treatment options for sleep apnea. In many cases, symptoms can be alleviated with surgery to remove enlarged tonsils and adenoids. Proper weight control can also be helpful. Some children benefit from the use of a continuous positive airway pressure machine (commonly called a "CPAP" machine). This gently blows air to keep the airways open at night. A child can use an oral appliance to help position the jaws and tongue during sleep. Conditions associated with sleep apnea, such as allergies, asthma, and acid reflux, may also need to be addressed.

If you suspect your child may have sleep apnea, you may wish to seek a specialist in pediatric sleep disorders.

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