How common is sleep apnea in children?
Though once thought of as a rare condition in children, sleep apnea is now known to afflict between 1% and 4% of children (depending on which expert you ask), though some doctors believe the actual number to be even greater than this. (Petersen, 2013)
Obstructive sleep apnea in children
Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the soft palate and tongue relax during sleep and fall back into the airway, closing it off. This causes blood oxygen levels to drop, which momentarily jolts a child awake, what is referred to as partial arousal, which restores breathing to normal. But since this can happen dozens of times each hour, it interferes significantly with a child's sleep.
Signs of sleep apnea in kids
Sleep apnea is often accompanied by heavy snoring (the restricted airway that causes the snoring is also what causes the muscles to contract, creating a temporary lapse in breathing). So if a child snores loudly, you might want to place a tape recorder in their room at night to see if they are experiencing sleep apnea as well. You should be able to decipher the silent pause when breathing is stopped, which is usually followed by gasps of breath or choking sounds once breathing resumes.
What causes sleep apnea in children?
The most common causes of sleep apnea in kids are enlarged tonsils and adenoids. These tissues at the back of the nasal cavity are often at their largest between the ages of 3 and 5, though a child's airway is still small. This can restrict the airway and lead to sleep apnea. Sleep apnea typically involves some sort of collapse of the airway, often the soft palate. But it's hard for patients to know exactly where the airway collapse is occurring, and impossible for doctors to know without the help of a sleep study.
Very young children can also experience sleep apnea as a result of the fact that the systems in their brain which regulate breathing are immature, and sometimes misfire. In children as in adults, obesity can also cause sleep apnea. Asthma and gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD) also put kids at increased risk for sleep apnea.
Is sleep apnea dangerous? Is it harmful?
Sleep apnea is not dangerous in the traditional sense (children always start breathing again), but it can cause a number of other problems for a child which could be harmful. For one, it tends to disrupt sleep. Children who stop breathing may awake briefly gasping for air when their reflexes kick in, so it can prevent them from getting a solid, relaxed night's sleep. This lack of quality REM sleep cycles can translate into learning and behavioral problems during the day. One study in the journal Pediatrics asked parents of 11,000 children about their child's sleeping habits. It was found that children who were observed to have disordered breathing in their sleep had 40% more behavioral problems at 4-years-old and 60% more at age 7. (Levine, 2012)
Furthermore, a number of studies are raising concerns that sleep apnea could deprive a child's brain of oxygen during sleep. So if such episodes are happening many times a night, over time this could cause neurodevelopment delays or other problems.