8 Signs Your Child Has Sleep Apnea and How to Help

Sleep apnea can start at any age for toddlers, preschoolers, and school-age children. Does your child display characteristics of a restless sleeper? 
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Obstructive sleep apnea is a disorder in which blocked or narrowed breathing passages cause people to snore and stop breathing briefly while asleep. Two percent of kids have apnea, usually because their tonsils or adenoids are enlarged. Untreated, the condition can lead to developmental and behavioral problems, including an increase in night terrors in a child who's predisposed to them. If your child has night terrors and any of the symptoms below, have him evaluated for obstructive sleep apnea. Treatment (usually the removal of adenoids and/or tonsils) can be very effective.

  1. Snoring—it's the most common sign.
  2. Pauses in breathing during sleep.
  3. Breathing through the mouth, both while asleep and awake.
  4. Contorted sleep positions, as your child unconsciously maneuvers himself to try to breathe more easily.
  5. Noisy breathing, coughing, and choking while asleep.
  6. Short-term wakefulness in sleep due to interrupted breathing.
  7. Unusual grumpiness in the morning.
  8. Persistent bed-wetting in a child who snores loudly and frequently while asleep.

My 6-year-old snores. Does she have sleep apnea?

Most people think snoring means someone is in a deep sleep, but it’s the opposite. If your child snores, she could be a restless sleeper who isn’t getting adequate shut-eye at night. It’s also possible she has sleep apnea, which can start up at any age for toddlers, preschoolers, and school-age children.

Take a video of her sleeping to show the doctor. Keep track of how loudly she snores and whether it happens every night or only once in a while (when she has a cold or seasonal allergies). Also, pay attention to whether she has breathing pauses, makes any choking or gasping sounds, or moves a lot when she sleeps—all potential signs of sleep apnea. Other clues: She may be hyperactive, have mood swings, and be irritable or inattentive during the day because she isn’t getting solid sleep at night.

If your pediatrician diagnoses enlarged tonsils or adenoids (the most common cause of apnea in kids), he may refer your child for a sleep study in a sleep lab and also to an ear, nose, and throat doctor to discuss removing them. Another possible treatment option is wearing a special dental appliance at night. —Judith Owens, M.D., director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital

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