A very serious condition in which the affected person ceases to breathe at intervals throughout sleep, sleep apnea can cause a myriad of problems with health and well-being. Not only can it cause fatigue and sleepiness during the day, but sleep apnea also causes a lack of oxygen to the brain and body which can create serious physical as well as learning problems in children.
What is Sleep Apnea in Children?
If you are familiar with the concept of sleep apnea in adults, then you’ll find that some parts of the disorder are very similar when children have it. The basics of sleep apnea are the same in children and adults in that repeated pauses in breathing occur during sleep as the airway is partially or completely blocked. Disrupted breathing during sleep leads to a lack of oxygen which can then result in a variety of other serious health problems.
While many of the symptoms and signs of sleep apnea are the same for adults and children, some of the factors related to sleep apnea in children manifest themselves very differently than when adults have the condition.
Sleep Apnea Child Symptoms
While many of the symptoms of sleep apnea in children are the same as adults, some are different. Here are some of the most common symptoms and signs for children with sleep apnea:
- Loud snoring (about 10% of children who snore have sleep apnea)
- Bedwetting (called “Enuresis”)
- Mouth breathing
- Daytime sleepiness
- Difficulty with concentration
- Observed breathing pauses during sleep
- Poor attention span and memory problems
- Poor school performance
- Issues with behavior
- Abruptly waking from sleep with a start
- Waking up with coughing or sensation of choking
- Activity during sleep such as thrashing
If your child exhibits some or many of these symptoms, you should be aware that they may have sleep disordered breathing, and you should consider speaking to a medical professional about it. Some studies have shown that as many as 25% of children who are diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) actually have sleep apnea. This means that some of the symptoms may be secondary and there’s hope for them to be remedied if the sleep apnea problems are treated.
Because the body is working so hard to get oxygen to the most critical parts, some of the less critical organs may have reduced oxygen levels and reduced activity. This can include the bladder. In adults, this manifests itself in frequent trips to the bathroom during the night. But children who have a less mature bladder may not wake up enough to be able to make it to the bathroom, so bedwetting can become a serious problem. This may also be due to the fact that children who have sleep apnea are often extremely exhausted, so when they are sleeping, they may tend to sleep more deeply and be unable to wake up to go to the bathroom. This can be very upsetting and embarrassing for older children.
If your child’s bedwetting is caused by sleep apnea, then treating the underlying condition of sleep apnea should most likely eliminate the problem with bed wetting as well. Your doctor will make recommendations regarding treatment for your child’s sleep apnea, depending on the cause of the problem. If treating sleep apnea does not stop bedwetting for your child, discuss this with your physician to determine other possible causes and treatments of bedwetting.
Most Common Cause and Treatment for Sleep Apnea in Children
In a large percentage of cases of sleep apnea in children, the contributing cause has to do with swollen or enlarged tonsils or adenoids that are getting in the way of the body’s ability to breathe properly. Adenoids and tonsils are part of the lymphatic system located in the back of the neck that often have a tendency to become inflamed or enlarged in children. As this happens, the child’s neck area becomes compacted and breathing passages may be cut off—particularly during sleep.
The good news about sleep apnea caused by enlarged adenoids or tonsils is that it is fairly easily remedied with a simple, outpatient surgery. Adenoids and tonsils are parts of the body that help to fight infection in children, but they shrink as a person grows into adulthood. In fact, they almost disappear completely. That’s why it is not uncommon for doctors to suggest that children who are having problems with these glands should have them surgically removed. As children grow older, their bodies find different ways to fight off infections and they no longer need theses body parts anyway.
While every operation comes with risk, removal of adenoids and tonsils in children who are suffering from sleep apnea is often less risky than living with the condition. The risks that are inherent in sleep apnea, including stopping breathing during sleep and the subsequent lack of oxygen to the brain, are certainly considered to be higher than the risk of surgery.
Other Causes and Treatments for Sleep Apnea in Children
Other causes for sleep apnea in children include being obese or largely overweight, abnormalities of the cranium (such as recessed jaw), deviated septum, asthma, allergies, or neuromuscular problems. In these situations, the treatment will be determined by the cause. For instance, children with allergies or asthma may benefit from a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) breathing machine, while a child with a recessed jaw may need mandibular surgical correction. Children who have dental crowding, or underdeveloped dental arches may benefit from being fitted with a dental appliance that could aid in breathing at night.
Children who have sleep apnea due to obesity may find that their doctor recommends a specialized diet and exercise plan to restore night breathing as well as reducing other risks associated with childhood obesity. This may also come along with a limited time use of a CPAP machine to assist with loss of weight in the beginning.
While bedwetting may be difficult for your child, and sleep apnea is a serious condition, there is hope for you to help your child find a remedy and a cure for the problem. If you suspect that your child has either of these conditions, contact a medical professional right away to gain a diagnosis and restore your child to ideal health.