Childhood sleep apnea is a condition in which there are brief pauses in your child’s breathing pattern during sleep. The most common type is obstructive sleep apnea, where an airway blockage causes it. Childhood sleep apnea can change your child’s sleeping pattern, which affects their behavior during the daytime.
Childhood sleep apnea is a common condition that causes a pause in your child’s breathing pattern while they sleep. Your child’s breathing changes due to an obstruction or blockage in their airway or because their brain isn’t communicating with their breathing muscles.
When your child’s brain senses changes to their body’s air intake, it’ll signal their lungs to breathe. This may cause your child to wake up frequently in the middle of the night. It’s similar to hearing your phone ring once while you’re sleeping. When you hear it, you wake up but fall back asleep instead of answering it.
While brief, these interruptions affect your child’s sleeping pattern. As a result, your child may be more tired during the daytime.
You may hear your child’s healthcare provider refer to childhood sleep apnea as pediatric sleep apnea.
There are three types of childhood sleep apnea:
Sleep apnea is very common. Around the world, an estimated 1 billion people have sleep apnea. Among children, obstructive sleep apnea occurs in up to 1% to 5% of all ages including babies, infants, toddlers, children, adolescents and teenagers. Childhood obstructive sleep apnea is most common between the ages of 2 and 6 years old.
While it’s most common for a child to experience mild symptoms of sleep apnea, untreated childhood sleep apnea could be dangerous and lead to the following complications:
Changes to your child’s sleep pattern may affect your child’s behavior, emotional capacity and academic performance.
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The signs and symptoms of childhood sleep apnea may include the following, which happen during sleep:
During the daytime, you may notice the following behaviors, which may be clues that your child has sleep apnea:
An obstruction or blockage in your child’s airways causes obstructive childhood sleep apnea. A miscommunication from your child’s brain to the muscles in your child’s airway causes central sleep apnea. Sometimes the use of a CPAP machine may cause a more complex sleep apnea.
Blockages or obstructions caused by obstructive sleep apnea can be the result of:
Your child may be more at risk of sleep apnea if they have:
A healthcare provider will diagnose childhood sleep apnea after learning more about your child’s symptoms and asking questions about their sleep like if they snore. They’ll also perform a physical examination and take a complete medical history. Your healthcare provider may recommend your child visit a sleep specialist.
A sleep specialist may conduct the following tests to determine if your child has sleep apnea:
Childhood sleep apnea treatment varies based on the cause and severity. Their healthcare provider will focus on clearing your child’s airways. Treatment options could include:
If your child develops complex sleep apnea after treatment for obstructive sleep apnea, their healthcare provider may suggest changing the airflow pressures on their CPAP machine or refitting the mask to your child’s face. Most often, CPAP airflow pressures are too high or too low. Almost all symptoms of complex sleep apnea improve with adjusted therapy.
A healthcare provider will evaluate your child’s symptoms before making a recommendation for treatment or at-home management of the condition.
Talk to your child’s healthcare provider about side effects of the treatment they recommend. Each type of surgery comes with possible risks. The side effects of medications vary by type. Ask your child’s provider if you should watch for side effects during their treatment.
Most causes of childhood sleep apnea can’t be prevented.
You can help your child reduce their risk of obstructive sleep apnea by:
Your child’s provider can make personalized recommendations to help your child reduce their risk, especially if the condition runs in your biological family history.
With treatment, childhood sleep apnea symptoms can go away and won’t have a long-term effect on your child as they grow. Untreated sleep apnea may be dangerous and can affect your child’s growth and development. Some children will have lingering symptoms as they age and may need lifelong management throughout adulthood.
For certain causes, treatment is available to eliminate symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea in children. If your child has mild symptoms of sleep apnea, they may grow out of it. This can happen when tissue in the back of their throat shrinks as they get older, which opens their airways. Surgery to remove tonsils or adenoids effectively treats the condition. Symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea may return if your child develops a new blockage in their airway.
Visit a healthcare provider if you notice signs or symptoms of sleep apnea, especially if you notice your child waking up often in the middle of the night or they have interruptions to their breathing pattern as they sleep.
Visit the emergency room (ER), or call 911 or your local emergency services number, if:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Childhood sleep apnea can take a toll on your child. They may feel tired during the day since they have trouble getting a good night’s rest. This can affect their daytime interests, activities, emotions and behaviors. If you notice signs of childhood sleep apnea, visit a healthcare provider for an evaluation. A healthcare provider can help you and your child manage the condition so they can breathe easier.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/15/2023.
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