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Sleep Apnea in Children

Stephanie Glover
June 24, 2015

Snoring or sleep apnea? A child's lack of sleep can make your whole household grumpy. Here's how you can recognize the signs and symptoms of sleep apnea in children.

Is it snoring or is it sleep apnea? If your child isn't getting a good night's sleep, it can disrupt your whole household. Those "cute" snores may not be so cute -- especially if sleep apnea in children is leading to long-term sleep deprivation for any of you.

Snoring can be a red flag for a more serious issue that parents should be aware of. "Whenever I learn from parents that their child is a regular snorer, it's an immediate red flag," says Laura Swartz, a certified child sleep consultant at Happy Healthy Sleep and the creator of the SleepBuddy Sleep System.

"Any snoring is a sign that the child is having difficulty breathing during sleep. This may be caused by a cold or allergies, which are typically nothing to worry about." However, if the snoring gets worse over time, so much that it disrupts sleep and impacts daytime mood and energy levels, the child could be dealing with sleep apnea.

What Is Sleep Apnea?
"Sleep apnea" is one of the major concerns doctors look for in children who snore. With sleep apnea, "the child actually stops breathing during sleep periods, and the body's natural response is to either remain in a light state of sleep or to wake up frequently to prevent suffocation," says Swartz. "Enlarged tonsils and adenoids are sometimes to blame, but there are other causes as well, such as obstructed sleep apnea in children, where their muscles become too relaxed during sleep and block the airway."

Signs of Sleep Apnea
Some of the classic signs of sleep apnea in children are:

  • loud chronic snoring
  • "mouth breathing" while sleeping
  • pauses or snorting/gasping where they actually stop breathing intermittently while sleeping
  • sleeping in strange positions -- stretched out, or with his upper body hanging off the bed
  • sweating heavily while sleeping

What Should You Do If You Suspect Your Child Has Sleep Apnea?
A child who suffers from obstructed sleep apnea (OSA) is not getting enough rest due to sleep being interrupted throughout the night. They may have issues such as difficulty waking in the morning, seeming tired during the day or might even suffer from restlessness, hyperactivity and behavioral problems. Swartz suggests that if any of these night or daytime symptoms are present, "it's a good idea to have the child checked out by a pediatrician immediately because sleep apnea may be the cause. The child may then be referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist or a sleep specialist to find out exactly how the snoring is impacting the child's sleep."

How Is Sleep Apnea Different From Snoring?
Although snoring can be a symptom of OSA, the fact that a child snores does not automatically mean he has the disorder. You can't diagnose or rule out sleep apnea for sure without medical screening.

The only way to positively determine if your child has OSA is to conduct a sleep study at a specialized sleep clinic. Before taking that very large step, Dr. Sasha Carr, a licensed psychologist, pediatric sleep coach and the owner of Off to Dreamland, recommends that you "make a video recording of your child when he is snoring, and share it with his pediatrician and/or a specialist in sleep medicine."

What Are Other Risk Factors?
Being overweight or of African American ethnicity can increase the risk of OSA. However, Dr. Carr warns that "although adult men are at higher risk of OSA than women, the risk is equal for children of both genders. So don't ignore warning signs because your child is a girl."

Children who snore at all and have any of these symptoms should be screened for OSA. "If your child snores every night or nearly every night, you may want to get him checked out," says Dr. Carr.

And check out Does Your Child Have a Sleep Disorder?

Stephanie Glover is a freelance writer who lives outside of Philadelphia.

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