Skip to main content

Guide to Sleep Apnea in Children

By May 17, 2021June 8th, 2021No Comments

Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition in which there are brief pauses in your child’s breathing pattern during sleep. These breathing interruptions affect sleep quality and can lead to daytime sleepiness and behavioral problems in children.

Researchers estimate that obstructive sleep apnea occurs in up to 2 to 5 percent of children, and can occur at any age. Although sleep apnea in kids is relatively rare, it is commonly underdiagnosed. Knowing the causes and symptoms of sleep apnea in children can help you determine when to see a pediatrician to help manage the condition.


What Causes Sleep Apnea in Children?

There are several causes of pediatric sleep apnea. The most common cause of sleep apnea in children is enlarged tonsils and adenoids that block the airway and obstruct breathing during sleep. The tonsils and adenoids may be enlarged due to genetics, frequent infections or inflammation. 

Other causes of sleep apnea in children include:

  • Obesity
  • Narrow facial bone structure
  • Disorders causing hypotonia (Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophies)
  • Retrognathia (small jaw)
  • History of cleft palate or pharyngeal flap surgery
  • Low muscle tone
  • High muscle tone
  • Family history of obstructive sleep apnea
  • Tumor or growth in the airway

How Do I Know if My Child Has Sleep Apnea?

The best way to find out whether your child suffers from sleep apnea is to see a doctor. Make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician if your child experiences any of the following signs of sleep apnea.

Signs of Sleep Apnea in Kids

The following are common sleep apnea symptoms in kids that occur during sleep:

  • Snoring 
  • Breathing through the mouth 
  • Coughing or choking 
  • Night sweats 
  • Sleepwalking
  • Sleep talking
  • Sleep terrors 
  • Bedwetting 

Sleep apnea also causes detrimental symptoms during waking hours, including the following:

  • Daytime sleepiness 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Hyperactivity, rebelliousness, impulsiveness
  • Morning headaches
  • Irritable mood
  • Difficulty controlling emotions

How is Pediatric Sleep Apnea Diagnosed?

First, a doctor will gather information from the child and parent or guardian about the child’s sleep habits, and daytime and nighttime symptoms. Your child’s pediatrician may also perform a physical examination of the mouth, neck and throat to look for physical characteristics that increase risk for sleep apnea.

If symptoms are present, diagnostic testing is done in a sleep clinic using overnight polysomnography. Polysomnography measures specific body functions while a person is sleeping, from brain function and breathing patterns to eye activity and muscle tone. This overnight study often reveals the full extent of the medical problem.

Home sleep tests are generally not recommended for children, based on the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine guidelines.

Treatment for Sleep Apnea in Kids

Treatments for pediatric sleep apnea depend on the cause and severity of symptoms. Be sure to discuss treatment with your child’s pediatrician. Treatment may include:

Adenotonsillectomy: When enlarged tonsils or adenoids cause obstructive sleep apnea, surgical removal of the tonsils and adenoids is usually performed to open up your child’s airway.

Weight Loss: In children with obesity and sleep apnea, weight loss can alleviate symptoms. Your pediatrician may recommend a diet and exercise plan to treat sleep apnea.

CPAP: Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy continuously pumps air into the airway during sleep. Your child will wear a CPAP mask that covers their nose and mouth while they sleep to keep their airway open.

Allergy and Sinus Inflammation Treatment: For children with mild sleep apnea symptoms, allergy and sinus relief medications, such as a steroid nasal spray or saline nasal rinse, may be a sufficient treatment option.

Can a Child Grow Out of Sleep Apnea?

Many children outgrow sleep apnea. Children with very minor or no symptoms may be monitored overtime without administering treatment. Your child’s provider can recommend good sleep habits and follow up to ensure improvement.