What Causes Sleep Apnea in Children?

Does your child toss and turn frequently during the night? Does he or she often wake up with headaches or a dry throat, or exhibit problematic behavior during the day? If so, you might not be aware that your child could be suffering from the sleep disorder obstructive sleep apnea.

Many parents might never consider that their children have OSA because of the misleading stereotype of a sleep apnea patient as a middle-aged man. In fact, an estimated 2-3% of children suffer from childhood sleep apnea. However, the causes—and, thus, the treatment—for kids can be very different than for adults. Read on to learn how to recognize your child’s symptoms, and what you can do to return them to a peaceful and restful night’s sleep.

Symptoms in Kids

Sleep apnea occurs when throat tissue obstructs a person’s airway while they are asleep, blocking their breath, which leads to restless sleep and unhealthy strain on the body. Thus, one of the most obvious symptoms that your child has this condition is heavy snoring, gasping, snorting, choking, or uneven breathing during sleep. Frequent bedwetting or nightmares, strange posture while sleeping, and waking up with headaches or a dry throat could also betray troubled sleep.

There are several behavioral clues that could also indicate that your child’s sleep is not as sound as it could be. A child might seem excessively sleepy during the day. Other possible side effects could include behavioral problems like hyperactivity or learning difficulties. Thus, children who unknowingly suffer from sleep apnea are often misdiagnosed with ADHD.

Getting the proper sleep is very important for children and adolescents, so sleep apnea can be detrimental for their growth and ability to perform during the day. Children who do not receive sufficient sleep have been shown to be more poorly behaved and less interested than their well-rested counterparts, and, in severe cases, lack of sleep can cause abnormal development.

What causes my child’s sleep apnea, and what can I do about it?

The most common cause of childhood OSA is having overly large tonsils and adenoids (a soft mass of tissue located just behind the uvula) that block off the airway during sleep. Surgery can be used to remove the tonsils and adenoids (tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy). This procedure cures sleep apnea in 80-90% of children.

Another common cause of sleep apnea in both kids and adults is being overweight or obese. Fortunately, children still have the ability to grow out of the sleep disorder, so such kids are strongly encouraged to lose weight through eating healthier and exercising. This will not only improve their sleep patterns, but their whole lifestyle.

Though these are the two main factors in childhood OSA, other causes, like medical conditions that lead to weak muscle tone such as Down’s syndrome, or just the child’s bone structure, can cause the sleep disorder. In these cases in which surgery or weight loss are not applicable, CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) therapy may be used.

Sleep apnea is diagnosed in children using an overnight test in a sleep center, called a polysomnogram. If you are considering scheduling a sleep study for your child, see our blog post on how to prepare your child for a sleep study.

If you are concerned that your child might have sleep apnea, make sure to talk to your doctor about his or her symptoms.

Request a consultation


Children’s Hospital Melbourne
American Sleep Apnea Association
WebMD, Medscape

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Photo Credit: Randen Pederson


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  3. Hailey Roberts Reply

    Sleep apnea occurs when throat tissue obstructs a person’s airway while they are asleep, blocking their breath, which leads to restless sleep and unhealthy strain on the body.

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