Sleep disorders aren’t exclusive to adults—they affect children as well. In fact, according to the American Sleep Apnea Association (ASSA), sleep problems appear to peak between two and eight years of age.
Pediatric sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that affects one to four percent of children in the United States. It is characterized by interruptions in breathing when a child is sleeping. The breathing pauses can occur many times in the night.
Read on to learn more about pediatric sleep apnea, particularly its types, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options.
Types of Sleep Apnea
Pediatric sleep apnea has two types: obstructive sleep apnea syndrome (OSAS) and central sleep apnea (CSA).
Obstructive sleep apnea syndrome is more common in both children and adults. OSAS develops mainly due to enlarged tonsils or adenoids (a patch of tissue located in the back of the nasal cavity) that partially or completely block the airway, the passages through the nose and mouth to the windpipe and lungs. Studies suggest that childhood obesity, narrow facial bone structure, cleft palate, neuromuscular disease, Down syndrome, low birth weight, and heredity also contribute to the development of the condition.
The other type of sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, is uncommon in children. It occurs when the brain momentarily stops sending signals to the muscles that control breathing. This causes the child to stop breathing until their brain sends the signals again or until they wake up. Risk factors for sleep apnea include neuromuscular disorders like cerebral palsy and structural defects in the base of the skull (Chiari malformation).
The signs and symptoms for both OSAS and CSA are mostly the same. The main difference is that snoring is more prevalent in children with OSAS than those with CSA; instead, babies and children with CSA have disturbed sleep.
Here are some of the signs and symptoms that are common to both conditions:
- Choking or coughing
- Disturbances in breathing
- Nighttime sweating
- Sleep terrors
- Insomnia (more common in CSA)
Effects of pediatric sleep apnea include:
- Poor school performance
- Learning problems
- Irritability and aggressiveness
- Morning headaches
- Excessive daytime sleepiness (more common in OSAS)
Untreated and severe cases of pediatric sleep apnea may result in growth problems in children and babies and increase their risk of developing heart problems.
Pediatric sleep apnea can have a severe impact on your child’s quality of life. If you notice the abovestated symptoms in your child, it proves prudent to take them to an ears, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist.
During your appointment with your ENT specialist, you will need to provide a detailed medical history of your child. This is important because sleep apnea is linked to preexisting medical issues. It is also necessary to tell the doctor whether your family also has a history of sleep apnea.
Your doctor will conduct a physical exam, checking your child’s neck, mouth, tongue, and adenoids, and may also order an X-ray to check your child’s upper airway or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of their brain. Other tests may include:
- Polysomnogram- This test is an overnight sleep study to record brain wave activity, snoring, breathing patterns, and oxygen levels, among others, during sleep.
- Oximetry- This test is done at home, and it involves taking an overnight recording of your child’s oxygen levels during sleep. Sometimes, the results are inconclusive, and your kid may still need a polysomnogram.
- Electrocardiogram- This test requires the use of sensor patches with wires that measure electrical signals from your child’s heart. It can detect signs of an underlying heart problem and help your doctor determine if this has anything to do with your child’s symptoms.
Once the ENT specialist has confirmed a diagnosis, they will recommend the most appropriate treatment plan, which likely includes any or a combination of the following:
- Medications– Topical nasal steroids can help alleviate the symptoms of this condition.
- Surgery- Adenotonsillectomy, which involves the removal of tonsils and adenoids, may help open your child’s airway and thus improve their sleep apnea. Other surgeries may also be necessary if your kid has problems with their head or neck structure.
- Positive airway pressure therapy- This involves the use of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) and bilevel positive airway pressure (BPAP) machines, which help keep your child’s airway open.
- Oral appliances- These include dental devices and mouthpieces. They can help expand the palate and nasal passages to keep the airways open. However, not all children benefit from this treatment.
In most CSA cases in children, addressing the underlying condition helps mitigate the symptoms of CSA.
Pediatric Sleep Apnea Treatment in Georgetown, TX
If your child is showing symptoms of pediatric sleep apnea, don’t wait to see a doctor. Schedule a consultation with Dr. Scott Franklin, our board-certified ENT surgeon and sleep medicine specialist at Georgetown ENT today. Dr. Franklin has extensive experience in the diagnosis and treatment of sleep apnea in both children and adults. He will perform a comprehensive evaluation, which includes sleep testing in our very own sleep center—a fully accredited sleep lab with sophisticated amenities designed to keep our patients comfortable during their test.