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Pediatrics

What Causes Sleep Apnea In Children?

A child sleeps in a space-themed decorated room.


Rest is especially important during our younger years. It is the time that our body recharges and grows. When our sleeping pattern is interrupted, it can cause irritability, drowsiness and headaches. In addition to the complications that having a complex medical condition can present, sleep apnea is one of many sleeping disorders that children may be dealing with.

Sleep apnea occurs a child’s throat muscles relax and temporarily block the air-flow to the nose and mouth. To stop this, a child will briefly wake up. Understandably, not getting a full night’s rest can be extremely frustrating. Even more so when you have to wake up, head to school and participate in after-school activities.

Sleep apnea can affect anyone, at any age. There are a number of factors that can cause sleep apnea. Some of them can be treated, while others have to be managed.

Who Is At Risk For Sleep Apnea?

Children who have cerebral palsy and other neuromuscular conditions tend to have abnormal muscle tone. Because they might be unable to reposition themselves when they are sleeping, they are more likely to deal with sleep apnea.

It is the same with children who have craniofacial conditions like cleft lip and palate and craniosynostosis. Because a child’s airway and jaw are often smaller, sleep apnea is more common. Adenoids, or tissues in the back of the nasal cavity and enlarged tonsils can also cause your child to deal with sleep apnea.

So how do you know if your child has sleep apnea? If they are wetting the bed, experiencing mood swings, having difficulty falling asleep, or are snoring, it is time to speak with your child’s healthcare provider. Seizures and high blood pressure are other signs to look out for. While adults with sleep apnea tend to be tired during the day, children often act out.

A sleep study room at Gillette

A Sleep Study Can Confirm A Sleep Apnea Diagnosis

The good news is that a sleep consultation can help identify whether or not your child has sleep apnea.

A sleep study, also known as polysomnography, takes place overnight. A pediatric sleep medicine specialist will monitor your child while they’re sleeping. By looking at their brain wave pattern, eye movement, airflow and blood oxygen level, the specialist can get to the root of the issue.

Other teams might be looped in depending on your child’s current diagnosis. For example, an evaluation from Gillette’s neurology department could help identify signs of epilepsy. Our specialists also might utilize an actigraphy, which is a test used to determine sleep patterns and circadian rhythms. 

All in all, Gillette’s sleep medicine program is designed specifically for children who have disabilities and complex conditions. This makes Gillette one of the best children’s hospitals in the nation for kids who have sleep apnea.

Treatment Is Unique To Your Child And Their Needs

Once a sleep apnea diagnosis is confirmed, there are numerous types of treatment. One option is the use of a continuous positive air pressure (CPAP) machine. A CPAP mask goes over your child’s nose and releases a puff of air into the throat. This relieves obstructions so that the airway remains open. It is only worn when your child is sleeping. 

In certain circumstances, surgery may become necessary. It is all based upon the specific needs of your child.

Your healthcare providers will discuss the many options available. In addition to sleep health services, your child might need comprehensive care that requires experts from a variety of specialties.

At Gillette Children’s, you can find that all in one place.

A Gillette patient smiles.

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