Child Sleep Apnea


The quiet, steady breathing of a sleeping child can be so comforting. Unfortunately, children who have a sleep disorder known as sleep apnea rarely enjoy restful sleep. Instead, they wake up multiple times through the night gasping for breath. It’s no surprise kids with sleep apnea are tired, cranky and distracted during the day. And, they may develop physical problems as well.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

Most common in children between ages three and six, sleep apnea is a condition in which the airway becomes partially or completely blocked during sleep, which disrupts breathing and interrupts sleep. Most kids have no memory of waking up throughout the night, but they’re clearly not sleeping well.

The most obvious symptoms include:

  • Loud snoring most nights
  • Choking, coughing, snorting or gasping for breath
  • Periods of not breathing

In addition to these symptoms, children with sleep apnea may:

  • Wet the bed
  • Be restless during sleep
  • Feel sleepy during the day
  • Be irritable
  • Have difficulty concentrating
  • Be hyperactive, irritable or have mood swings during the day

Without treatment, sleep apnea may lead to long-term health problems, such as:

  • Slow growth and development due to a lack of growth hormone production.
  • Obesity caused by increased resistance to insulin and/or reduced physical activity due to fatigue.
  • Increased risk of high blood pressure and other heart and lung conditions.

Treating Sleep Apnea in Children

Mercy Kids sleep medicine experts start with a physical exam and review of symptoms to determine why your child has sleep apnea. There may be several causes:

  • The most common cause is a narrowed or blocked airway due to enlarged tonsils.
  • Overweight children may develop it due to excess fat around the neck and throat.
  • Jaw or tongue abnormalities may contribute.
  • Conditions such as Down syndrome or cerebral palsy may play a role.

In some cases, we may suggest an overnight sleep study (polysomnogram) so we can more closely study your child’s sleeping patterns. This non-invasive study involves spending the night in the hospital or a child and family friendly pediatric sleep center. Monitors are placed on the body to evaluate your child’s breathing, heart rate, eye and body movements, brain activity and other indicators of sleep quality throughout the night. All of this helps us determine what is happening in the body during sleep.

Depending on the diagnosis and severity of the problem, we’ll develop a personalized treatment plan to help your child breathe normally during the night.

Treatment may include:

  • Surgery to remove enlarged tonsils.
  • Weight loss if excess weight is causing the problem.
  • A Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) or Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure (BIPAP) device, which is worn at night and helps to keep the airway open.

If your child has repeated episodes of loud snoring or nighttime breathing difficulties, contact a Mercy Kids pediatric provider. Sleep apnea isn’t common among children, but when it does occur, it can have serious effects on your child’s health and quality of life. Our experts are ready to help your little one get the rest they need.

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