With over 22 million Americans suffering from sleep apnea, it’s no longer an uncommon condition. However, it is significantly less common in children and infants than it is in adults. So is it possible for babies to have sleep apnea? Yes, but it’s not too common. Although it’s not common, it’s still just as important, if not more important to recognize the signs and symptoms and know when to take your baby to the doctor for help. Learn more about pediatric obstructive sleep apnea below.

little baby holding a teddy bear while sleeping

Pediatric Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea in babies isn’t nearly the same as in adults or older children. In babies, they have a larger tendency toward gas exchange abnormalities and airway obstruction caused primarily by their bodies that are still developing. Therefore, treatment can be much more complicated than with older children and adults.

Pediatric sleep apnea occurs when your baby’s upper airway becomes partially obstructed or blocked during sleep. One of the major differences between adults and babies is that while adults experience daytime sleepiness, babies and children tend to experience more behavioral problems.

Causes of Pediatric Sleep Apnea

Although obesity is the most common cause of sleep apnea in adults, enlarged tonsils and adenoids are the most common cause in children. Obesity can also play a role in addition to neuromuscular disorders and craniofacial anomalies. Infants usually suffer from sleep apnea due to an immature brain stem or a medical condition.

Signs and Symptoms

To find out if your baby or child has sleep apnea, it’s important to pay attention to potential signs and symptoms. Do any of the following symptoms sound familiar to you?

  • Pauses in breathing during sleep that last 20 seconds or longer
  • Slow heartbeat
  • Low oxygen level
  • Have needed respiration or resuscitation before
  • Gasping, choking, snorting, or coughing for air while sleeping
  • Difficulty breathing during any sleep including naps

In older children, you might notice other symptoms:

  • Poor school performance
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Learning problems
  • Behavioral problems
  • Unhealthy weight gain
  • Hyperactivity

If you notice any of these symptoms in your infant or older child, your first step is to receive a diagnosis.

Risk Factors

Certain medical conditions can increase your baby’s risk of obstructive sleep apnea. These include:

  • Obesity
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Neuromuscular Disease
  • Family History of OSA
  • Down Syndrome
  • Sickle Cell Disease
  • Skull or Face Abnormalities
  • Low Birth Weight

In addition, certain health conditions can cause or make sleep apnea worse including:

  • Anemia
  • Acid reflux
  • Anesthesia
  • Infection
  • Drugs
  • Lung disease
  • Neurological problems
  • Small upper airway
  • Seizures

A small percentage of babies who pass away from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) have sleep apnea symptoms prior to their death. Although there is no conclusion as to whether or not sleep apnea is a risk factor for SIDS.

Complications

Without treatment, pediatric sleep apnea can lead to some serious consequences including a failure to grow, heart problems, or even death.

Getting Diagnosed

The first step to receiving a diagnosis is scheduling a consultation with a doctor. A doctor will give your baby or child a physical exam to evaluate their airway, neck, mouth, tongue, tonsils, and adenoids. If they don’t find anything, they may also require that your child or baby takes a sleep test. Sleep tests track oxygen levels, breathing patterns, snoring, heart rate, and muscle activity during sleep. They may also conduct an electrocardiogram to see if there are any signs of a heart condition.

Pediatric Sleep Apnea Treatment

After your baby or child receives a diagnosis for obstructive sleep apnea, your doctor will come up with a treatment plan. Usually, a treatment plan for babies is much different than older children. Treatment might include:

  • Topical nasal steroids to ease sleep apnea symptoms for children with mild cases.
  • Allergy medications used alone or with steroids
  • Tonsil and adenoid removal for moderate to severe sleep apnea.
  • Other types of upper airway surgery to improve the airway.
  • Positive airway pressure therapy such as CPAP or BPAP machines.
  • Oral appliances that expand the nasal passages and palate, hold the tongue in the correct position, or bring the lower jaw forward to expand the airway.
  • Myofunctional therapy involves tongue exercises designed to improve the strength and muscles in the mouth and tongue.

What To Do If You Suspect Sleep Apnea

Whether you think one of your children has sleep apnea or maybe you’ve recognized the symptoms in someone else you know, the best thing you can do is encourage them to visit a doctor for a diagnosis. If they’re searching for an effective treatment, they might be a good candidate for oral appliances at our Troy, MI dental office. If you have questions about sleep apnea or want to learn more about oral appliance therapy, please contact Michigan Center for TMJ & Sleep Wellness at (248) 480-0085 today.