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Sleep Apnea in Children: Diagnosing and Finding Help

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When a child is sick, it’s scary. Most illnesses are much more serious in children than they are in adults. Young kids don’t know how to adequately take care of themselves; they understand what it means to feel ill, but they can not be expected to identify their own health problems and seek treatment.

How Common is Sleep Apnea in Children?

Apneas are quite common in newborn babies and young infants. Sleep Apnea most common in babies that are born preterm; this is called apnea of prematurity. There are very specific tests and assessments that must when used in preterm apnea babies. It is pretty rare to find Sleep Apnea in a healthy full-term baby.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea is pretty common in young children; the sleeping disorder is usually found in children with other underlying health problems like craniofacial abnormalities, chromosomal or neurological disorders, obesity, and poor muscle tone. According to the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, OSA if found in 2-5% of all children.

What Symptoms Do Children With Sleep Apnea Show?

It is vital for parents stay up-to-date on potential health risks that could affect their children. Many parents keep an eye out for symptoms of extremely common illnesses like the flu or chickenpox; they may not know how common Sleep Apnea is in children, so they don’t recognize the symptoms. When Sleep Apnea goes undiagnosed, especially in children, additional serious medical problems can arise. Adults must be able to readily identify the symptoms of sleeping disorders like sleep apnea in young children.

  • Failure to Grow and Thrive: During sleep, the body produces a chemical known as the Growth Hormone; it is responsible for stimulating cell growth, cell regeneration, and cell reproduction. Most significant growth occurs during childhood while asleep. Children who experience poor sleep quality caused by frequent apnea-related arousal do not get the opportunity produce significant amounts of the growth hormone. Insufficient levels of the Growth Hormone can cause weight loss and make gaining weigh difficult. Children that seem small for their age, or do not seem to be growing at all, may be the victims of a sleeping disorder like Sleep Apnea.
  • Breathing through the Mouth: A lot of children who experience difficulty breathing at night tend to sleep and breathe with their mouths open.  In addition, they commonly sleep with their necks extended. By adjusting the face and neck, or breathing through the mouth during sleep, the body is making a subconscious attempt to open the airway and widen the passage for breath. These adjustments can cause dry mouth and sore throat upon wakening.
  • Large Tonsils and Adenoids: If your child has over-sized tonsils or a noticeably large tongue, make sure to monitor their sleeping habits closely. These muscles have a tendency to become loose. When the muscles of the tongue relax too much during sleep, the bottom of the tongue can fall into the back of the throat.  The base of the tongue prevents proper respiration by obstructing the airway. The muscles in the tongue, the throat, the soft palate, and the tonsils can all obstruct the airway when they become too lax. When these muscles relax, they often rub against each other and create the sound of snoring. Although snoring is one of the most common symptoms found in children with OSA, it is important to remember that many children experience primary snoring on a regular basis. Snoring is not always a sure-fire sign of Obstructive Sleep Apnea in babies and children, but it can be an indicator.
  • Learning Disabilities: During an episode of apnea, breathing ceases and the body is deprived of oxygen. When breathing stops, sufferers experience a decrease in blood oxygen levels and the brain is quickly affected by oxygen deprivation. Lack of oxygen consumption is one of the most common causes of brain damage. Brain damage can cause malfunctions in the nervous system and neuromuscular functions that result in learning disabilities. In congruency, many people who suffer from learning disabilities may also be suffering from Sleep Apnea as they are both related to brain malfunctioning.
  • Restless Sleep/Trouble Sleeping: Many children with Sleep Apnea experience trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. When respiration ceases during sleep, the body will try and accommodate the changes that result. Children often shift positions frequently during sleep as an attempt to open the airway. Also, kids that stop breathing during sleep often wake up terrified and sweaty; in many cases the children experience night terrors or urinate in the bed.
  • Allergies: Children who suffer from severe allergies may be experiencing apneas while they sleep. Extreme nasal irritation caused by allergies can cause the nasal passages to become obstructed, decreasing airflow into the body.
  • Daytime Sleepiness: Sleep is an important bodily function during all ages of life, but it is most important in babies and young children. During childhood, a lot of processes are taking place in the body and the brain during sleep. These important processes help young people grow strong, stay healthy, and they strengthen the immune system. Children who experience sleep disturbance or sleep deprivation as a result of Sleep Apnea are extremely tired and cranky during waking hours. Children who fall asleep constantly during the day may be also experiencing apneas during the night.
  • Behavioral Issues: Daytime sleepiness can cause young children to display moodiness and behavioral problems. Sleep deprivation can cause hyperactivity in young children- the physical state of being overly-active.  Sleep Apnea may be the underlying cause of problems for many children who have been diagnosed with ADD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Many children who were diagnosed with behavioral and emotional problems showed significant improvement in their symptoms after being successfully treated for Sleep Apnea.

Prone to Respiratory Infections: Sleep Apnea is common in children who experience frequent, repetitive infections in the respiratory system. Respiratory infections can compromise the muscles and tissues that help keep the airway open during sleep.

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