Sleep Apnea in Children

Sleep apnea in children is becoming more common as childhood obesity becomes more common. It is a sleep condition that causes oxygen levels in the body to fall when a child stops breathing.

Sleep apnea is a well known condition in adults, however sleep apnea in kids can be more challenging to diagnose or recognize. Symptoms and treatments vary with age groups. Central and obstructive sleep apnea are further divided as the two condition are more common in different age groups.

Three Types of Sleep Apnea in Children

Obstructive Sleep Apnea in kids occurs when the upper airways are partially or completely obstructed and normal breathing is disrupted during sleep. It is the result of something blocking the upper airway such as enlarged tonsils or enlarged adenoids. Children and toddlers are more prone to central apnea.

Central Sleep Apnea in kids is present when the neurological message fails to initiate breathing. This is more common in premature or newborn babies. A young nervous system or other serious condition such as hypoxia, hypothermia, infection, or head injury may be in conjunction with central apnea. The central type overall is less common than obstructive apnea.

The combination of the two, mixed sleep apnea can affect toddlers and newborns. For the rest of this article, we will mainly be referring to obstructive sleep apnea.

Sleep Apnea in children, although similar to adults does have distinct differences.

  • Obesity is less of a factor in children with sleep apnea
  • Enlarged adenoids is the most common cause of apnea in children
  • Tonsilectomy and adenoidectomy are the most common treatment for children, as opposed to CPAP for adults
  • The rates in boys and girls is almost equal, as adult males have higher rates than women
  • Snoring in children is more continuous in apnea cases, and adult snoring will be intermittent
  • Sleepiness in children with apnea is not as common, in comparison to adults whose number one symptom is sleepiness

Who is At Risk?

Although all children may be susceptible, certain conditions make kids more susceptible. The condition is more common in kids with birth injuries, Down's syndrome, Sickle Cell disease and other conditions that affect the upper airways. In older children, as with adults, obesity also raises their risk factors.  A large tongue can fall back during sleep and block the airway and structural defects of the mouth or jaw that narrow the airway can cause sleep apnea in children.

Common Symptoms

The typical symptoms in adults can parallel sleep apnea in kids. Snoring, mouth breathing, long pauses of no breathing, and restless sleep. However in children these are not always as apparent and other signs could be decreased school performance or obstinate behavioral changes. Children are not always as able to express themselves and tell you that they are tired. Behavioral and learning problems can result as well as growth and heart problems.


This sleep disorder is diagnosed the same way it is done with an adults.  A polysomnography can diagnose and assess the severity of obstructive sleep apnea in children.


In a majority of children's sleep apnea cases, enlarged tonsils and adenoids are to blame and therefore removal will usually be the solution. The CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) mask provides gentle positive air pressure in the airway during the night. However all cases of sleep apnea in kids should be addressed with their doctor,

What Parents Should Know

With limited rest and a lack of quality deep sleep, children are more prone to behavioral problems. Kids are growing and developing and require a lot of sleep for the body and brain to function optimally. Instead of identifying a child's disorderly conduct as sleep apnea, it may be misdiagnosed with a behavioral disorder or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). The fragmented sleep can lead to learning and behavioral problems.


If you have one child that suffers from this problem, you are now aware and can work to prevent it in your other loved ones and friends' children. Treating the initial onset of snoring and caring for nasal congestion are helpful steps to take. As always treating and preventing obesity is essential, not only for sleep apnea but for the child's overall health both now and in the future.

Sleep apnea in kids and adults can greatly alter ones quality of life and too often goes undiagnosed.  It is up to you as the parent to determine if further evaluation is needed by a health professional.  Pay attention to the warning signs and take action. Sleep apnea is fortunately very treatable.

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