Sleep Apnea in Kids: Identifying Symptoms for Parents -A Comprehensive Guide

If your child sounds like an elderly person snoring—or a freight train—when they sleep, they might have pediatric obstructive sleep apnea. That’s right, kids can have sleep apnea, too.1

“It’s surprising to a lot of parents that it’s possible for children to have sleep apnea,” says Dr. Abhita Reddy, a pediatric otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat specialist, or ENT) at Cedars-Sinai Guerin Children’s.

Sleep apnea is not just a condition that affects adults; it can also occur in children. Recognizing the symptoms of sleep apnea in kids is crucial for early diagnosis and intervention. In this blog post, we will delve into the signs and symptoms of pediatric sleep apnea and provide guidance to parents on what to look out for. Identifying these symptoms can help parents seek appropriate medical attention and ensure their child’s well-being.

Understanding Pediatric Sleep Apnea:

Pediatric sleep apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by pauses in breathing or shallow breaths during sleep. These interruptions in breathing can occur multiple times throughout the night and affect the child’s quality of sleep. The two main types of sleep apnea in children are obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and central sleep apnea (CSA). OSA is more common and occurs when the airway becomes partially or completely blocked during sleep. CSA, on the other hand, involves a disruption in the brain’s signals that control breathing.

Common Symptoms of Pediatric Sleep Apnea:

  1. Snoring: Loud and persistent snoring is one of the most noticeable signs of sleep apnea in children. It may be accompanied by snorting, gasping, or choking sounds during sleep.
  2. Pauses in Breathing: Parents may observe episodes where their child stops breathing for a few seconds during sleep. These pauses are often followed by abrupt awakenings or gasping for air.
  3. Restless Sleep: Children with sleep apnea may exhibit restless sleep patterns, tossing and turning frequently throughout the night.
  4. Daytime Sleepiness: Excessive daytime sleepiness can manifest as persistent fatigue, lack of energy, or difficulty staying awake during the day. Children with sleep apnea may appear irritable, have trouble concentrating, or exhibit behavioral problems.
  5. Mouth Breathing and Dry Mouth: Kids with sleep apnea often breathe through their mouth instead of their nose. This can lead to a dry mouth or sore throat upon waking.
  6. Bedwetting: Sleep apnea can contribute to bedwetting in children who were previously toilet trained.
  7. Slow Growth or Developmental Issues: Prolonged sleep disruption due to sleep apnea can impact a child’s growth and development, leading to issues such as poor weight gain or delayed milestones.

When to Seek Medical Attention:

If you suspect that your child may have sleep apnea based on the observed symptoms, it is crucial to consult a healthcare professional. A pediatrician or a sleep specialist can evaluate your child’s condition and recommend further diagnostic tests, such as a sleep study (polysomnography), to confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment Options and Management:

The appropriate treatment for pediatric sleep apnea depends on the underlying cause and severity of the condition. Treatment options may include:

  1. Adenotonsillectomy: Surgical removal of enlarged tonsils and adenoids is often the first-line treatment for obstructive sleep apnea in children.
  2. Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP): In cases where surgery is not sufficient or if central sleep apnea is diagnosed, CPAP therapy may be recommended. CPAP involves wearing a mask that delivers pressurized air to keep the airway open during sleep.
  3. Weight Management: For overweight or obese children, lifestyle modifications such as a healthy diet and regular exercise can help improve sleep apnea symptoms.
  4. Dental Devices: In some cases, a dentist may suggest oral appliances that can help keep the airway open during sleep.
  5. Positional Therapy: Encouraging the child to sleep in a specific position (such as on their side) can sometimes alleviate mild cases of sleep apnea.

Recognizing the symptoms of sleep apnea in children is crucial for early intervention and proper management. If you notice any signs of sleep apnea in your child, it is essential to consult with a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment options. By addressing pediatric sleep apnea, parents can help improve their child’s sleep quality, overall health, and well-being.