Childhood Sleep Apnea: 8 Signs and Symptoms
If you have heard your child snore or he seems like he is not sleeping well, you may wonder, does your child have sleep apnea? Sleep apnea may seem like a condition that affects older people, but sleep apnea in children is very real and can cause a variety of mental, physical and social problems. When wondering if your child has sleep apnea, it makes sense to understand exactly what sleep apnea in children is.
What is Sleep Apnea in Children?
Sleep apnea is a condition where the individual stops breathing at certain points during sleep. This typically happens because there is something blocking the upper airway. This form of sleep apnea is called obstructive sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea in children can cause interrupted sleep. When you stop breathing, even momentarily, the oxygen levels in the body drop, and that disrupt the sleep cycle. This makes it more difficult for someone suffering from sleep apnea to get a restful night’s sleep. If left untreated, sleep apnea in children can cause behavior, learning, heart and growth problems.
Causes of Sleep Apnea in Children
It is normal for the muscles to relax as you sleep. If the muscles in the back of the throat relax too much, the airway can collapse. These are the muscles responsible for holding the airway open, so when they become overly relaxed it leads to trouble breathing. In individuals with enlarged adenoids or tonsils, the blockage can be even more severe.
There are a variety of things that can cause sleep apnea in children. They include being overweight, a family history of sleep apnea, a large tongue, this can fall back and create a blockage in the airway, structure issues in the throat, jaw or mouth that create a narrow airway, or other medical conditions such as cerebral palsy or Down syndrome.
Breathing through the mouth may indicate your child is experiencing or is at risk of developing, sleep apnea. Humans are designed to breathe through their noses, so mouth breathing indicates something is wrong. If the nasal passages are constricted, due to allergies, for example, your child may start breathing through his mouth. When breathing through the mouth, the jaw muscles set in a relaxed state and can lead to weakness in the muscles of the mouth and throat. This can lead to sleep apnea in children.
Symptoms of Sleep Apnea in Children
Actual sleep apnea spells often occur without the individual realizing it. When you stop breathing, the oxygen level in the body drops quickly and the carbon dioxide level rises. This is a sign for the brain to wake you up. You wake up to breathe and go back to sleep so quickly you don’t realize you were awake. This pattern repeats itself during the night, preventing you from having a restful, deep sleep.
If you hear your child snoring, particularly with snorts, pauses or gasps, he may be experiencing sleep apnea episodes. Restless sleep, and sleeping in odd positions are also signs of sleep apnea in children. Heavy breathing, daytime sleepiness, night terrors, sleepwalking, and bedwetting can all also indicate sleep apnea in children.
If you notice your child grinding his teeth you may want to investigate whether he is suffering from sleep apnea episodes. If the soft tissues at the back of the throat are blocking the airway, grinding or clenching the teeth may be a sign that the body is trying to open the airway. Grinding and clenching your teeth tightens up the tongue and jaw muscles and can help open up the airway.
Because your child is not getting a good night’s sleep, you may have trouble waking them up in the morning. They may fall asleep, be hyperactive, and have trouble focusing during the day. These symptoms can affect school performance, and lead to the teacher believing they have ADHD or other learning difficulties.
Diagnosing Sleep Apnea in Children
If your child is a restless sleeper, snores, falls asleep during the day or exhibits other signs of sleep apnea, you may wonder, does your child have sleep apnea? It is important to consult with your child’s pediatrician about your concerns. He may want to refer your child to a specialist who may want to perform a sleep study.
Sleep studies are used to diagnose sleep disorders, including sleep apnea in children. Your child will need to spend the night in a sleep center to undergo the sleep study. Sleep studies are used to measure snoring and other noises, blood oxygen, and carbon dioxide levels, body movements and positions, heart rate, eye movements, brain waves, and breathing patterns.
Treatment For Sleep Apnea in Children
There are a variety of treatments available for sleep apnea. They include:
- Weight Loss
If the sleep apnea is relatively mild, and not interfering with your child’s quality of life, your doctor may choose to monitor symptoms for a while, before deciding on a treatment. If the cause of sleep apnea is enlarged tonsils or adenoids, your doctor may refer your child to an ear, nose, and throat specialist. The ENT may want to remove either the tonsils, adenoids or both. These procedures may be all that is required to end the sleep apnea.
Your doctor may want your child to use continuous positive airway pressure therapy. CPAP therapy requires your child to wear a mask covering the nose or nose and mouth during sleep. The mask connects to a machine that uses air to keep the airways open.
Depending on your child’s age and the reason for sleep apnea, he may be able to wear a mouthguard while sleeping to prevent episodes of sleep apnea. These mouthguards generally work best on older children but can be used on children as young as six.
If your doctor believes that weight may be the cause or a contributing factor to your child’s sleep apnea, he will probably recommend lifestyle and diet changes to support safe weight loss. Sometimes reaching a healthy weight is enough to put a stop to episodes of sleep apnea.
Complications of Sleep Apnea
When wondering does your child have sleep apnea, you may be tempted to put off diagnostics. Sleep studies, although painless and safe, are often scary to young children. It is important to understand that snoring is not necessarily something harmless. You should talk to your pediatrician to get to the bottom of the snoring issue before it impacts your child.
Studies suggest that snoring, even when not tied to sleep apnea, can cause a variety of health issues in children. With that in mind, it is important to investigate and treat snoring and sleep problems.
Sleep apnea is thought to increase fragmentation in sleep. This means the body is constantly switching from one sleep stage to another. This shift between lighter and heavier sleep cycles do not allow your child to get the long period of deep restful sleep they need.
Children who have sleep apnea may experience symptoms similar to adults, where they are drowsy during the day, but they are just as likely to respond to this lack of sleep by developing social problems, having trouble paying attention, becoming hyper, or experiencing periods of depression or anxiety. Children who don’t sleep well are more likely to perform poorly on memory and learning tests.
Children who experience sleep apnea not only develop emotional and mental symptoms, they can experience physical problems as well. Disruption of deep sleep can interfere with hormone secretion, including growth hormone. With less growth hormone available, normal growth patterns can be negatively affected.
As you can see, sleep apnea can cause a variety of health issues. If you are wondering, does your child have sleep apnea, it is important to seek answers. If you believe your child may be experiencing sleep apnea, you should schedule an appointment with your pediatrician to discuss your concerns.