Sleep apnea is a disorder in which a person's breathing stops and starts. It is potentially serious because not only can sudden drops in your blood’s oxygen levels increase blood pressure and strain your cardiovascular system, but it can also disrupt your ability to get proper sleep.
Sleep apnea affects people of all ages, but 2 – 10% of children suffer from obstructive sleep apnea with varying symptoms and severity.
How do I know if my child has sleep apnea?
Usually the first sign of sleep apnea is loud snoring. However, many children (10 – 20%) experience snoring, and many don’t have obstructive sleep apnea. What you need to look out for is gasping for air between the snoring. You may hear a snore, a long pause, then a louder snore or huge inhale that will sound like a snort. Between snoring, your child may also breathe heavily. It is recommended you check on your child at night. If you suspect they have sleep apnea, you should listen for their breathing patterns and monitor their sleeping position.
Children can show signs of sleep apnea during the day as well. If they have a hard time waking up, are tired during the day and daydream, or have headaches in the morning, it may be a sign of sleep apnea.
Causes of Sleep Apnea
Some causes of sleep apnea in children include:
- Excess body weight
- Family history of obstructive sleep apnea
- Deformities of the airways (throat, mouth or sinus)
- Tendency to sleep in odd positions or with an open mouth
- Certain medical conditions, such as Down syndrome or cerebral palsy
Diagnosing Sleep Apnea
The only way to properly diagnose sleep apnea is through a sleep study. If your child experiences the symptoms above, you may want to schedule a sleep study. The study monitors brain and body functions during sleep that can indicate whether your child has sleep apnea.
Sensors will be placed on certain parts of the child, and the child sleeps in the sleep center overnight. We try to make the child as comfortable as possible and aim to make the sleep study a stress-free experience for both child and parent. The sleep study monitors eye movements, noise, breathing pattern, blood oxygen levels and heart rate.
Treating Sleep Apnea
In many mild cases, lifestyle changes and some medication can help eliminate sleep apnea. The doctor may recommend your child lose weight and make changes to diet, daily activity and sleep routine.
In more severe cases, sometimes removing tonsils and adenoids can help open up the airways and stop sleep apnea. However, if this is not the cause, CPAP therapy may be recommended. With a CPAP, your child wears a mask that covers the nose and mouth. The mask is connected to a machine that continuously pumps air into the child’s air passages during sleep.
If you have questions about sleep apnea, please call Inova Children's Sleep Center at 703-226-2290 or make an appointment with one of our pediatric sleep specialists.