Sleep apnea is a common disorder, in fact, over 18 million Americans have it, and there are estimates that an additional 10 million people have it and don’t even know it. When you hear statistics like this, it’s not uncommon to dismiss it as pertaining exclusively to adults, but sleep apnea is a disorder that affects many children as well. Sleep apnea in children is caused by the same factors as in adults, a relaxation in the muscles of the upper airway that cause it to collapse and obstruct breathing. Similarly, as in adults, sleep apnea has a strong correlation to obesity in children, with obese children being at higher risk for Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) as well as the opposite, children with OSA exhibiting a tendency to gain weight.
The significant difference between adult OSA and children’s OSA is the series of developmental factors associated with the disorder in children. OSA affects approximately 2-4% of children, and is responsible for most childhood sleep lab referrals. Children with OSA may exhibit moody and inattentive behavior, resulting in poor performance in school and disruptive behavior at home. Furthermore, OSA can result in attention deficit disorder in children, further impairing their ability to perform in school or social settings. In addition to these neurological effects, OSA also affects child development in a physical manner. The decrease in oxygen flow to a child’s brain can result in the decrease of growth hormone production. Resultantly, it’s possible your child will display slow growth and development.
A study in China followed 50 children, aged 3-10, to see if OSA had a significant impact on height. Approximately half of the group had OSA while the other half did not, and they were tracked over the course of a year. The resulting conclusion was that there is a significant difference in the growth rate of those with OSA and those without, but that if OSA is cured the growth rate of a child will become accelerated to match that of a child without the sleep disorder. This gives hope to the large number of children affected by the effects of Obstructive Sleep Apnea.
While the aforementioned factors are far more prevalent in children than adults, children are still at risk of cardiovascular issues, such as high blood pressure and heart failure that result from the increased output of the heart. While these aren’t effects that will happen immediately, it’s crucial to treat OSA before it becomes a potentially fatal condition. Often times, children can be treated through removal of their tonsils, which may have become enlarged. The majority of children show marked improvement after this surgery, but in cases where it’s not effective a doctor may suggest weight loss, additional surgery, or a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) mask. The CPAP mask is generally effective if a child can get used to sleeping with it on, thereby preventing the need for additional surgery.
If you observe your child snoring, continually ceasing to breathe during sleep, and exhibiting excessive daytime sleepiness, it may be a sign that he or she has OSA. The best plan of action is to consult a sleep doctor who will recommend you to an appropriate sleep lab. The sleep lab will perform a polysomnograph that will diagnose your child’s condition and allow the sleep doctor to prescribe an individualized treatment plan to help your child get a better night’s sleep.