Pediatric Sleep Apnea Guidelines: What Every Parent Needs to Know

For a parent, it can be quite concerning to find out that your child has sleep apnea. Although this condition can be treated, it’s important that parents have accurate information about what it entails and how to help their child cope better with it.

In this article you will find detailed information about what every parent should know regarding this sleep disorder.

Sleep apnea symptoms in children

The first thing you need to know is that this condition is rather rare in children. According to the Sleep Foundation, obstructive sleep apnea only affects 1% to 5% of children.

However, as rare as this condition might be, as a parent you’ll want to keep an eye on any possible signs of sleep disruption. In young kids, this sleep disorder is commonly associated with the following symptoms:

  • Heavy breathing / breathing through the mouth when the child is asleep. 
  • Snoring, especially if it’s interrupted by snorting, choking, or gasping. 
  • Sleeping in awkward positions. 
  • Restless sleep.
  • Bedwetting. 
  • Poor concentration and / or learning difficulties. 
  • Irritability. 
  • Waking up with headaches or with a sore / dry throat. 
  • The child complains of waking up tired. 

If you notice any of these symptoms over a period of time, we strongly recommend you speak to your pediatrician, who will most likely refer your child to a sleep specialist.

How is this condition diagnosed in children?

The sleep specialist will use several methods to confirm or rule out a sleep apnea diagnosis. These may include questionnaires about sleeping habits and a physical examination. 

If these methods are inconclusive, your child might require a sleep study, either at home or at a clinic. These tests allow specialists to access data about quality of sleep and can detect patterns in sleep disruptions.

What if a diagnosis is confirmed?

If your child is diagnosed with sleep apnea, you will be informed about several important things, such as how severe the condition is and which type of sleep apnea your child has. 

Obstructive sleep apnea or OSA is the most common type. Here, the child’s throat muscles become excessively relaxed, so they collapse and interrupt normal breathing. This limits the amount of oxygen that reaches the brain, which triggers sudden gasping or snorting in order to reopen the airways. 

In some cases, the sleep specialist will be able to pinpoint what is causing the condition. This is more likely in cases where it can be attributed to a physical problem, such as unusually large tonsils, narrow airways, chronic nasal congestion, respiratory conditions like asthma, or size differences between the upper and the lower jaw.

It may be possible to reduce or eliminate the symptoms of sleep apnea by addressing the root cause, which could mean your child needs tonsil or adenoid removal surgery. In some cases, the specialist may advice a dental retainer to modify the jaw position while this joint is still developing. Medication can reduce nasal congestion. 

What are the treatment options?

This will mostly depend on the severity of the condition. If it’s mild, the sleep specialist may recommend monitoring the child’s sleep patterns for a while to see if they improve on their own. 

In moderate and severe cases, you may be recommended one of the following options, or a combination of them:

  • Oropharyngeal exercises or myofunctional therapy. Don’t be intimidated by the word! These are mouth, jaw, tongue, and throat exercises designed to strengthen the muscles in these areas, so that the airways don’t collapse so easily when the child is asleep. 
    This non-surgical treatment option has proven to be effective in patients of all ages, helping decrease snoring intensity and frequency and facilitating normal breathing.
  • Orthodontic treatment is another non-surgical option if your child is aged 4 to 10. This entails getting the child to wear an orthodontic device placed on the roof of the mouth, which expands the upper or lower jaw as required. Thanks to their expanding action, these devices allow more air to flow through the airways. 
  • CPAP therapy, which involves wearing a face mask to bed. The mask is connected to a machine that continuously delivers air at the right settings, so that breathing is more stable. To make CPAP use more comfortable, some manufacturers provide masks specifically designed for young patients. 

What can parents do to help their children sleep better?

When a child is diagnosed with this sleep disorder, it’s important to follow your specialist’s recommendations -- and to be consistent with the treatment prescribed.

As a parent, it can be a relief to know there are certain things you can do to help your child cope with the symptoms and adjust to treatment more easily. Here are some useful recommendations:

  • Have your child sleep in a different position to see if it makes any difference to how often they experience breathing interruptions. For example, some children only have this problem when they sleep on their back. 
  • If the child has known allergies, do your best to avoid exposure to allergens as these will worsen the symptoms. Even if your child isn’t allergic, it makes sense to avoid exposure to dust and other substances that may irritate the respiratory system. 
  • Excess weight is a risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea, so it’s a good idea to talk to a doctor or dietician about healthy weight loss plans if your child is overweight.
  • Kids who are prone to nasal congestion could benefit from having a humidifier in their room. 

Obstructive sleep apnea can be treated so that your child enjoys better sleep quality. You can always get more personalized guidance from your child’s pediatrician or from a sleep specialist who has experience treating children.