Oct 27, 2017, 10:24:35 AM CDT Feb 22, 2023, 3:56:36 PM CST

Is my child at risk of developing sleep apnea?

Learn the signs, how pediatric sleep apnea is treated and potential long-term effects

Teenager sleeping Teenager sleeping

You’ve probably heard of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), the most common type of sleep apnea, which causes pauses in breathing during sleep. You may even know an adult who has the condition, but did you know that it can affect kids too? Sleep apnea is a health condition that affects 2 to 3 percent of children up to age 18 – and it’s on the rise in this population.

Kamal M. Naqvi, M.D., Medical Director of the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Center at Children’s Health℠ and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at UT Southwestern, says his team is seeing an increase in the number of kids with sleep apnea in their practice, year over year.

There are two main groups of children with sleep apnea:

  • The more common pediatric sleep apnea condition occurs in younger children, and is primarily caused by large tonsils or adenoids.
  • The other type of pediatric sleep apnea – which is seeing the largest growth – occurs in obese children (mostly teenagers). The rise of sleep apnea in this population mirrors the national obesity epidemic, explains Dr. Naqvi.

Signs of sleep apnea in kids

Dr. Naqvi urges parents to watch for the following potential signs of sleep apnea in their children during sleep:

  • Snoring
  • Breathing pauses
  • Gasping for breath
  • Increased sweating
  • Bed-wetting episodes

There are also daytime signs that could point to sleep apnea, including:

  • Hyperactivity
  • Impulsiveness
  • Inattention or difficulty focusing at school
  • Sleepiness
  • Changes in mood
  • Decline in school performance

“Many behaviors that could look like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD]could be due to sleep apnea,” points out Dr. Naqvi. “Anytime there’s a child with a concern for ADHD, who also snores, that child should be evaluated to rule out sleep apnea.”

Treating sleep apnea

The type of sleep apnea your child has will determine the appropriate treatment. If a child’s large tonsils or adenoids are the suspected cause, then surgery to remove them will likely be recommended. Dr. Naqvi reports that 75 to 80 percent of children with sleep apnea related to tonsils or adenoids no longer have the condition after having these removed. The remaining 20 percent of children will need to seek further treatment, including medication or a nighttime breathing device such as a CPAP machine.

In cases where a child has obesity and sleep apnea, Dr. Naqvi says the excess weight must be addressed. When the child loses weight, often the sleep apnea also improves.

Long-term effects of untreated sleep apnea

When a child isn’t getting enough quality sleep due to sleep apnea, school performance, mood and overall quality of life can be affected. These can all have a significant impact on the child’s life. An even more significant long-term consequence of untreated pediatric sleep apnea is heart problems, including increased heart size – known as hypertrophy – or the development of hypertension (high blood pressure).

“It’s important to occasionally observe how your child is breathing during sleep,” Dr. Naqvi recommends. “If your child is in an unusual sleep position, using too many pillows, restless during sleep or stops breathing periodically during sleep, I recommend your child be evaluated for sleep apnea.”

Learn more

The highly experienced specialists at Children’s Health can help identify and manage risk factors, diagnose and treat sleep apnea in children. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.

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