Is your child tossing and turning much in the bed while sleeping; taking long pause while breathing; stopping breathing several times during sleep; gasping for air and snorting; snoring loudly and regularly every night; putting excessive effort to breath; bursting in night sweats; indulging in chronic mouth breathing during sleep – If the answer is yes, then your child is most likely suffering from sleep apnea. Nearly about 5 to 6% of children between age 2 and 8 years’ experience the signs and symptoms of sleep apnea.

Why sound sleep is important for children?

Sleep is as important as nutritious food and physical activity for proper mental, physical and overall development of a child. According to several researchers who studied the impact of sleep disorders on the executive functions of the brain, sleep apnea can lead to alterations in the cognitive abilities, planning, organization, self-monitoring and self-regulation in the brain of a child.

What are the health risks associated with sleep apnea?

Sleep apnoea may lead to poor and disturbed sleep – following which a child may have difficulty paying attention, mood disorders, hyperactivity, and learning difficulties. A child who snores loudly during sleep is more likely to have the following problems:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
  • Delayed Growth in Children
  • Heart problems in children
  • Learning difficulties

In addition to the above health conditions, undiagnosed and untreated sleep apnea may lead to behavioural and emotional problems and daytime fatigue in children.

The Symptoms associated with Sleep Apnea in children

A child who experiences sleep apnea may have the following symptoms during the night:

  • Regular and louder snoring daily
  • Pauses breathing several times, gasps for air and snorts
  • Gasping and snorting awaken the child
  • Sleep disturbance due to stoppage of breathing
  • Sleep in abnormal positions with their heads positioned abnormally
  • Exhibits restlessness
  • Sweat heavily during sleep

The symptoms associated with sleep apnea during the day time include the following:

  • Children don’t wake up unless somebody forces them to
  • Have problems with studies, socializing, behaviour and concentration
  • Show learning issues
  • Have morning headaches and during the daytime
  • Become irritable, hyperactive, cranky, agitated and aggressive
  • Become prone to daytime sleeping
  • Fall asleep during any time of the day or daydream
  • Feel dull, lethargic and sleepy during the day
  • Breath regularly through mouth

What are the causes of sleep apnea in children?

There may be several causes of sleep apnea in children, enlarged adenoids and tonsils are one such cause. Obese children are more likely to have sleep apnea. Neuromuscular, neurological disorders, craniofacial anomalies and other underlying health conditions can also cause sleep apnea in children.

Risk factors for sleep apnea

Apart from obesity, the following are other risk factors for paediatric sleep apnea:

  • Family history of sleep apnea
  • History of low birth weight
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Down syndrome
  • Neuromuscular disease
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Abnormalities in the skull or face

Bottom line

Though there is a strong possibility of a child outgrowing sleep apnea, their problem must get evaluated by a specialist doctor – who is trained in the diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders in children. Untreated cases of sleep apnea can take a heavy toll on the health and well-being of children if the disorder persists for long. Many studies have strongly concluded that around 25% of children diagnosed with hyperactivity, learning difficulties and ADHD have obstructive sleep apnea and most of their symptoms including behavioural problems and learning difficulties and attention problems were due to chronic fragmented sleep. In addition, growth retardation, sleep-walking, bed-wetting, metabolic disorders, hormonal problems and other mental health issues in children can also be related to sleep apnea.

In addition to the above disorders that are associated with sleep apnea, even childhood obesity is also strongly linked to sleep apnea. This is also quite evident from several recent studies.