Can My Child Have Sleep Apnea?

Childhood Sleep Apnea
Sleep Apnea in Kids. Sami Sarkus / Getty Images

Can My Child Have Sleep Apnea?

Sleeping disorders in children are more common than you might think, and are not always related to weight issues. Approximately 1-4% of children have obstructive sleep apnea. Many of these children have mild symptoms and may eventually outgrow the disorder.

What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)?

Obstructive sleep apnea is the partial or complete cessation of breathing due to soft tissue blocking the back of the throat.

A common cause of obstruction in kids is enlarged tonsils and adenoids. Children can naturally inherit narrow upper airways from their parents, or overweight children can have fat deposits which are often associated with smaller upper airways. Other disorders with links to OSA include Down's syndrome, Pierre-Robin syndrome, cerebral palsy and head/face abnormalities.

What are the symptoms of OSA?

  • mouth breathing
  • waking up frequently during the night
  • parents may notice pauses of breathing during sleep
  • excessive daytime sleepiness
  • snoring
  • hyperactivity
  • behavior problems
  • sweating in sleep
  • bedwetting
  • night terrors
  • difficulty waking up in the morning

Getting the Help Your Child Needs

Your primary care pediatrician can get the ball rolling with an initial evaluation including polysomnography (a sleep study) to make the diagnosis of sleep apnea. This test may be coordinated with a pediatric pulmonologist or ENT doctor.

Once the diagnosis of OSA is likely, the ENT specialist can evaluate your child for surgical interventions. If your child has enlarged tonsils and/or adenoids they may need surgery to remove them; this is called an adenotonsillectomy. Even with this surgery, OSA may still occur. If a diet is indicated for obesity-related OSA, the specialist will also be able to provide healthy dietary guidelines.

The polysomnogram (overnight sleep study) takes place at a sleep center. The study will determine if a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine is necessary and what setting would be appropriate for your child. Oral devices currently used to treat sleep apnea in adults are still being evaluated for use in children. However, every case of OSA is unique, and your physician will design a treatment plan tailored to your child's needs.


American Sleep Apnea Association. Children's Sleep Apnea. Accessed: October 28, 2015 from

Medscape. Childhood Sleep Apnea Clinical Manifestations. Accessed: October 28, 2015 from

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