Sleep Apnea in Kids: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

One of the most apparent problems in creating more awareness for sleep apnea is that people seem to have a false idea about what a sleep apnea patient is supposed to look like. For most people, imagining a sleep apnea patient means conjuring up an image of an overweight middle-aged male. While this image is not entirely inaccurate, it falls way short of representing everyone who could be potentially afflicted by the condition. 

Many women get falsely diagnosed, as their doctors tend to prescribe insomnia medication, rather than focusing on the underlying problem. An even worse example of this misconception is reflected in the fact that children with sleep apnea tend to get diagnosed with disorders such as ADHD instead because the condition manifests itself in changes in the child’s behavior due to lack of quality sleep. 

For these reasons, we have decided to try to present our readers with some general explanations of what sleep apnea in children looks like and how to treat it.

What is Sleep Apnea in Children?

Pediatric obstructive sleep apnea, otherwise known as sleep apnea in children, is a sleep disorder that causes partial or complete interruptions repeatedly in a child’s breathing during sleep. A blockage or narrowing of the upper airway during sleep is the cause of the condition. Infant sleep apnea can sometimes be solved by getting your kid a different crib mattress, while other times, there is a need for more extensive treatment.

Differences exist between adult sleep apnea and pediatric obstructive sleep apnea. Children more often exhibit behavioral problems as a result of poor sleep during the night, whereas adults usually have daytime sleepiness. For adults, the underlying cause is most often related to obesity, while the most common underlying condition in children is the rapid growth of the tonsils and adenoids.

As is the case with any condition and disease, it is vital to diagnose and treat the problem as early as possible to prevent the potential complications that could potentially affect the child’s long-term behavior, cognitive development, or growth. This can be difficult because it is sometimes hard to know how much sleep your kid needs in the first place.

What Causes Sleep Apnea in a Child?

As we mentioned in the previous section of the article, causes of sleep apnea in adults can vary significantly from the origins of childhood sleep apnea. With age, neck circumference, and weight being the main contributing factors in adults, the most common cause for children is an enlargement of the adenoids and tonsils.

The sudden growth of these tissues can cause breathing problems during the day. The muscles in the throat relax along with the other muscles when the child is asleep, which allows the adenoids and tonsils to restrict airflow in the respiratory system and trigger apnea episodes.

This isn’t to say that childhood obesity is entirely devoid of responsibility, as it can be a contributing factor as well, in the same way, that it does in adult patients. The likelihood of disruption in breathing goes up with the amount of fatty tissue in the throat.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea in Children

In case you’re worried that your child’s troubles with sleep may indicate a problem with sleep apnea, you should be aware of the symptoms to keep an eye out for. While some of the symptoms can only be witnessed when your child is asleep, many other indicators manifest themselves during the day as well.

Nighttime Symptoms

Snoring

If you can hear your child snoring at night, you may suspect sleep apnea to be the cause, and rightfully so. However, only about 10% of kids who snore actually have sleep apnea. Snoring may be the symptom of other underlying issues as well, so it’s not a bad idea to have it checked out.

Breathing pauses during sleep

This is probably the most well-known symptom of sleep apnea, and if you hear your kid making long pauses between breaths or struggling to breathe during the night, you should talk to their doctor immediately. This is especially true if your kid breathes through their mouth during sleep since kids with enlarged adenoids tend to exhibit this behavior.

Bedwetting

In rare cases, bedwetting can be a symptom of sleep apnea, but it is more often the case that the problems with sleep exacerbate the pre-existing issue of bedwetting. Be that as it may, if your kid tends to wet their bed, it might be a good idea to listen in for other symptoms while they sleep.

Daytime Symptoms

Behavioral issues

As we mentioned above, many children today tend to be falsely diagnosed with ADHD and similar attention disorders due to lack of sleep. Children do not react to fatigue in the same way that adults do, as you must have already deduced, and they tend to exhibit hyperactive or otherwise unwanted behavior when they are sleepy.

Lack of sleep also invariably leads to problems with concentration and the shortening of the child’s attention span, which is too often attributed to ADHD, leading to children being medicated for the wrong reasons. If you suspect that your child has an attention-deficit problem or a reduced attention span, first make sure they are getting enough quality sleep, as a lack thereof can be a massive contributor to a host of behavioral problems.

Daytime Sleepiness

Children also show signs of daytime sleepiness if they suffer from sleep apnea, although not as much as adults do. As we said, kids tend to deal with fatigue differently, mostly because they don’t seem to understand when the urge to sleep arises.

That said, many kids will show signs of sleepiness during the day if they have sleep apnea issues, which could lead to other problems such as difficulty at school or a general lethargy associated with doing any kind of task.

What Are Possible Complications of Sleep Apnea in a Child?

Kids with sleep apnea that goes untreated for an extended period run the risk of developing adaptive, behavioral, as well as learning problems. Many issues such as poor performance at school, difficulty with concentration and learning, as well as hyperactivity – all symptoms similar to those of ADHD, may manifest themselves in children suffering from poor sleep caused by sleep apnea.

In as many as 25% of cases, behavioral and learning problems in children diagnosed with ADHD may be related to fragmented sleep and sleep apnea. Studies showed that kids with incident sleep apnea have up to five times more of a chance to develop behavioral problems, and the odds are six times higher for kids with persistent sleep apnea.

Compared to kids who have never exhibited sleep-apnea symptoms, kids who have difficulty breathing at night have shown a tendency towards problems with self-care, social competency, communication, attention, disruptive behaviors, and hyperactivity.

Treatment

The best way to begin treating your child’s sleep apnea or even figuring out if they have it is to talk to their doctor. They will work with you to figure out whether your child is suffering from the issue, as well as how to deal with it most appropriately.

One route your doctor may choose to take, and the one that most often results in the elimination of the issue is the removal of adenoids and tonsils. Your doctor may decide to refer your little one to a pediatric ear, nose and throat specialist for further discussions on treatment. 

An adenotonsillectomy (the procedure of removing tonsils and adenoids) is the most likely to improve obstructive sleep apnea by opening the upper respiratory airway. This is true only if the underlying cause of the issue is related to tonsils and adenoids. Other forms of surgery on the upper airways may be suggested based on the unique condition of your kid.

Another way doctors may choose to go is positive airway pressure therapy. Bilevel positive airway pressure (BPAP) and continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) are done by small machines attached to your child’s nose and mouth through a tube and mask. These machines gently blow air into the back of your kid’s throat keeping their airway open. You may be wondering how to put a baby to sleep with one of these on, but they tend to get used to it rather quickly. Positive airway pressure therapy is a common way of treating pediatric sleep apnea since tonsil and adenoid removal is not always necessary.

Natural Treatments

Wearing a CPAP mask may be one of the most common ways doctors treat sleep apnea. Still, it isn’t necessarily the only way, especially if the symptoms are relatively mild, or connected to obesity and other factors rather than an issue with tonsils and adenoids. There may be some home remedies that offer benefits, and may even get rid of the problem altogether.

The first thing you’ll want to do if your child has problems with sleep apnea is to make sure they maintain a healthy weight. Most doctors will recommend weight loss as a treatment for sleep apnea, and obesity in the upper body in particular, can increase airway obstruction and cause a narrowing of the nasal passages. These obstructions can lead to sleep apnea by causing your little one to stop breathing for extended periods.

Another thing you can try is exercise. Even though this type of treatment is related to weight-loss, it is not the only reason your kid should be exercising as a way to get rid of sleep apnea. Regular exercise can strengthen your child’s heart and increase their energy level on top of improving sleep apnea. Specifically, yoga has been found to offer massive improvements in terms of oxygen flow and respiratory strength. 

One of the results of sleep apnea is a decreased level of oxygen in the blood, and yoga can improve your kid’s oxygen levels through a number of breathing exercises. This is why yoga lowers the amount of sleep interruptions experienced by your kid.

FAQ

Can a child outgrow sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea in toddlers is often caused by the rapid growth of tonsils and adenoids. This rapid growth usually does not allow the surrounding tissue to keep up and expand to the required level. Kids can often outgrow the condition by merely waiting for the rest of their upper respiratory system to catch up. 

However, during this period, children may encounter a variety of severe problems, so treating the condition in some way is extremely important.

What is the best sleeping position for sleep apnea?

Research has shown that snoring and sleep apnea sufferers achieve the best results when sleeping on their side. This way, the airways are much less likely to restrict air or collapse entirely, which means your child will have a more stable supply of oxygen to the lungs. 

That said, it could also be a good idea to take a look at some of the best beds for children and get your little one something more comfortable.

Conclusion

Children of all shapes, sizes, and ages can start developing problems with sleep apnea, and it can lead to some severe issues, not only during the night but in their behavior and attention during the day as well. If you think your kid may be exhibiting some of the symptoms and signs such as hyperactive behavior, reduced attention span, restlessness or snoring, it is crucial to speak to their doctor and get a proper diagnosis and plan of treatment.

Most children recover from sleep apnea with treatment, as the condition can often be outgrown, or at least managed with therapy such as a CPAP machine. A sleep apnea diagnosis is not as problematic in this day and age as it may have been in the past, and most kids can continue to lead healthy and happy lives despite the condition.

Sources

https://www.sleepapnea.org/
https://www.uptodate.com/contents/management-of-obstructive-sleep-apnea-in-children

 

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