Just like adults, children can have sleep apnea, too. As parents, we spend lots of time watching our kids sleep and smile when they dream or produce a tiny snore. Most snoring is harmless, but what if it’s not? How can you know?
We do not exclusively mean sleep apnea when talking about “pediatric sleep-disordered breathing”. Sleep-disordered breathing is any disturbance that doesn’t allow your child to breathe easily at night. It can range from small, probably harmless, snores to sleep apnea at its worst. The important thing is to be aware of the signs of childhood sleep apnea so you can head off problems in their early stages.
Pediatric Sleep Apnea Defined
Pediatric sleep apnea is the frequent stoppage of breathing while sleeping due to an obstruction (Obstructive Sleep Apnea) or abnormal brain function (Central Sleep Apnea). These pauses in breathing can last 8 seconds or much longer and deprive the brain of oxygen. The brain will panic and awaken the sleeper briefly to resume breathing, inhibiting the sleep cycle.
Nighttime Childhood Sleep Apnea Symptoms
Many different symptoms could mean pediatric sleep apnea, and as you may have guessed, many of these happen at night. Remember, though, anytime your child is sleeping, they could present signs of sleep apnea; it doesn’t just have to be at night.
Snoring is the sound of air moving past the relaxed soft tissues of your child’s throat. These tissues vibrate and cause the snoring sound you hear. When we think of sleep apnea, snoring often is top of mind. While it can be a symptom, snoring does not exclusively prove or disprove sleep apnea in children.
Mouth breathing can signify childhood sleep-disordered breathing. Your child may breathe through their mouth when they are sick or are congested. That’s normal. But mouth breathing all the time isn’t. When your child breathes through their mouth, it’s a sign that there is a blockage in their sinuses, not allowing them to breathe through their nose.
Bed Wetting or Frequent Nighttime Bathroom Use
Have you ever wondered why you don’t need to use the bathroom during the night at the same frequency as during the day? Our bodies produce a hormone telling our kidneys to continue recycling the excess water through our body at night instead of turning it into urine. Shortly after awakening in the morning, our bodies stop this hormone, and we have to use the bathroom.
Children with sleep apnea are constantly being awakened by their brains because they aren’t getting enough oxygen. Their body doesn’t know to continue producing the hormone when they’re awake, so it stops. These sleep apnea awakenings can be so brief that your child doesn’t know it has happened and because their body has stopped recycling liquid, they wet the bed. Or, the urge to urinate will wake them up again, and they’ll use the bathroom during the night.
Sleep terrors are intense periods of fear, screaming, or flailing while your child is asleep. These are different than nightmares because they occur in stage 3 of sleep instead of REM. After a nightmare, your child will wake up and likely remember their dream, but with a sleep terror, your child won’t wake up afterward or remember it. Some of the causes of sleep terrors are sleep disturbances, sleep deprivation, stress, and anxiety. With pediatric sleep apnea, your child will experience all of these things, which could produce a sleep terror.
Other nighttime symptoms of pediatric sleep-disordered breathing are listed below. Remember that sleep-disordered breathing can occur on a continuum, so the worse their condition gets, the worse their symptoms will be.
- Choking or gasping noises during sleep
- Restless sleep
- Stoppages in breathing
- Nighttime sweating
Daytime Childhood Sleep Apnea Symptoms
Even though their condition happens while they sleep, you’ll see symptoms during the day that point to pediatric sleep-disordered breathing or sleep apnea in children.
Poor Memory or Difficulty Learning
We know that children need a lot of sleep. But why? Well, your child’s brain has an essential job during sleep. During the day, your brain produces waste which sits on your brain until your body can wash it away. During stage 3 of sleep, this is precisely what your child’s brain is doing. It’s cleaning waste from throughout the day so it can start anew in the morning. If their brain isn’t allowed to rid itself of these harmful chemicals, the chemicals will start to interfere with their brain and lead to poor memory and, in turn, difficult learning.
As children, they learn so much in a day and need to continue absorbing information. This is simply a biological impossibility when waste can not be cleared from their brains.
We know that when our children don’t get enough sleep, they don’t behave. Now imagine your child being deprived of sleep every night because of pediatric sleep apnea. Their behavior will suffer for the same reasons that memory and learning suffer. Their decision-making process (deciding to behave or not) is interrupted by those harmful chemicals that their body didn’t clear from their brain. Additionally, children with sleep apnea tend to have higher levels of the neurotransmitter glutamate, which stresses the brain.
Aggression can be a sign of childhood sleep apnea, too. While you think your child acts irrationally, they physically can not act differently because they aren’t sleeping.
Hyperactivity or ADHD can easily be a misdiagnosis of pediatric sleep apnea. During sleep, your child’s brain has another function essential for a productive day. It organizes and processes memories and new information while they sleep. If your kiddo’s sleep is interrupted, their brains won’t file information correctly, and when they awaken, their brain will still be tired from the day before and present as scattered and unfocused. You can see how misdiagnosis with ADHD and sleep apnea can happen. Knowing the signs of childhood sleep apnea could mean your child avoids ADHD medication for the rest of their lives.
There are several reasons why childhood sleep apnea can stunt your child’s growth. First, sleep apnea can cause weight gain and obesity in children. Like adults, weight gain happens due to inactivity caused by a lack of sleep and stunts growth. Second, the same large tonsils that could be obstructing the airway block the pathway for food, and children cannot get enough calories. Finally, hyperactivity can mean your child is using all their energy, and there isn’t enough left for growth.
Read through the list below to learn the other daytime symptoms of childhood sleep apnea and sleep-disordered breathing.
- Daytime sleepiness
- Low Energy
- Depression or low mood
Does Your Child Have Sleep Apnea?
If you suspect that your child may have sleep apnea, take the quiz and contact one of our ASAP Pathway Certified sleep doctors today.
You may just save your child’s future.