As any parents of young children would agree, sudden changes in a child’s behavior are a major cause of frustration and concern. When a child starts acting hyper or moody, most health professionals are quick to blame behavioral disorders, when the culprit may actually be OSA, or Obstructive Sleep Apnea.
What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?
Obstructive Sleep Apnea or OSA is a breathing disorder that leads to partial or complete breathing obstructions during sleep. It’s more common among adults than children, only affecting 2-3% of children and usually between the ages of 3-6 years, but it can affect even babies and newborns.
During sleep, muscle relaxation can lead to the upper airway in the throat becoming limp. This causes vibrations in the soft tissue of palate and tongue, creating snoring sounds. In children, the airway can become obstructed by enlarged tonsils and adenoids, which are also the main cause of frequent throat or ear infections, blocked noses, etc.
If sleep apnea goes undiagnosed in children, it may lead to low grades, learning problems and behavioral disorders. Children that struggle with OSA also tend to sleep in awkward positions and suffer from increased nighttime sweating, night terrors and bed wetting. Feeling out of control can be incredibly scary for them!
Snoring Prevention and Childhood OSA
It’s not unusual for babies and children to snore in their sleep, especially if they have a cough or cold. It’s even more common when they’re very young, since a baby’s tiny airways tend to fill with fluid secretions when they sleep. When the air being inhaled comes in contact with these fluids, it creates snoring and snuffling sounds.
However, snoring may not be normal for your child even it’s fairly common. Most children snore loudly but without obstruction, which is called “simple” snoring. You should listen to your child’s snoring to check whether they make gasping or choking sounds, or if they have long pauses between snores that may signal they’re pausing to breathe.
Observe your child’s sleeping position as well. If they’re lying with their neck or head stretched back or shifting positions too often, they may be trying to get into a position where they can breathe more easily.
How Does Children’s Sleep Apnea Affect Behavior?
Sleep apnea causes microarousals, a term used to describe frequent wakings from deep sleep as a result of pauses in breathing. OSA also reduces oxygen supply to the brain, affecting your child’s ability to concentrate, plan, process information, and act on it. It may also result in strain on the lungs and heart over time.
Your child may not remember waking to take a breath, but their sleep is affected by frequent disruptions. Unlike adults who feel lethargic or irritable if they suffer from chronic tiredness, children are more likely to display agitated, fidgety and hyperactive behavior as a result of broken sleep.
Here are some of the other changes that you may notice in your child:
- Decreased emotional or mental functioning
- Trouble paying attention in school or at home
- Excessive snoring, or gasping/choking while asleep
- Restlessness, sweating, bedwetting and night terrors
- Daytime sleepiness, lethargy or frequent headaches
- Complaints of a dry mouth or sore throat upon waking
- Irritable and moody spells or frequent emotional outbursts
- Frequent tantrums, perhaps accompanied by kicking/biting
- Sleep deprivation can also raise the risk of childhood obesity
Since many of these behaviors are quite common in childhood, especially at certain stages of development, OSA in children is often misdiagnosed as ADHD, hyperactivity and other behavioral disorders. If these are not typical for your little one, are happing too frequently, or seem worse than normal, your child may have sleep apnea.
How is Childhood Sleep Apnea Treated?
Since the symptoms of childhood sleep apnea may resemble those caused by ADHD, it can be hard to diagnose the breathing disorder correctly. In fact, it’s estimated that 15% of American children are diagnosed with ADHD and put on strong medication for it, while only 5% may actually suffer from the condition.
If your child has frequent ear or throat infections, colds or a blocked nose along with excessive snoring, their doctor can check for enlarged tonsils or adenoids. An ENT specialist can also conduct an in-lab sleep study, checking their oxygen intake, airflow and heart rate during sleep. In addition, you should visit a family dentistry clinic too.
Dentists specializing in pediatric dentistry play a key role in diagnosing sleep disorders in children, since they tend to be in contact with their young patients more frequently than other health professionals. They may refer patients to a sleep medicine specialist for assessment, and then help manage the condition in the initial stages with oral appliances.