Brief pauses in breathing during sleep are normal. But when breathing stops often or for longer periods, it's called sleep apnea.
When someone has sleep apnea, oxygen levels in the body may fall and sleep can be disrupted. You might think that only older people have sleep apnea, but kids and teens can develop it, too.
Sleep apnea happens when a person stops breathing during sleep ("apnea" comes from a Greek word meaning "without wind"). It is usually caused by something obstructing, or blocking, the upper airway. This is known as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).
OSA is a common, serious condition that can make kids miss out on healthy, restful sleep. If left untreated, obstructive sleep apnea can lead to learning, behavior, growth, and heart problems. In very rare cases, it can even be life threatening.
Less commonly, sleep apnea can happen when someone doesn't get enough oxygen during sleep because the brain doesn't send signals to the muscles that control breathing. This is called central sleep apnea. Head injuries and other conditions that affect the brain increase the risk of developing this type of apnea, which mostly affects older adults.
When we sleep, our muscles relax. This includes the muscles in the back of the throat that help keep the airway open. In obstructive sleep apnea, these muscles can relax too much and collapse the airway, making it hard to breathe.
This is especially true if someone has enlarged tonsils or adenoids (germ-fighting tissues at the back of the nasal cavity), which can block the airway during sleep. In fact, enlarged tonsils and adenoids are the most common cause of OSA in kids.
Risk factors for the development of OSA include:
When breathing stops, oxygen levels in the body drop. This usually triggers the brain to briefly wake us up so that the airway reopens. Most of the time, this process happens quickly and we go right back to sleep without knowing we woke up. But with sleep apnea, this pattern repeats itself all night. So people who have it don't reach a deeper, more restful level of sleep.
Symptoms of OSA in kids include:
Because OSA makes it hard to get a good night's sleep, kids might have a hard time waking in the morning, be tired throughout the day, and have attention or other behavior problems. As a result, sleep apnea can hurt school performance. Teachers and others may think a child has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or learning difficulties.
If your child snores regularly, is a restless sleeper, is very sleepy during the day, or has other signs of sleep apnea, talk to your doctor. Your doctor might refer you to a sleep specialist or recommend a sleep study.
A sleep study (also called a polysomnogram) lets doctors check for OSA and record a variety of body functions while a child sleeps. Sleep studies also can help doctors diagnose central sleep apnea and other sleep disorders.
In the study, sensors are placed at a few spots on the child's body with a mild adhesive or tape. The sensors are wired to a computer to provide information while the child sleeps. Sleep studies are painless and risk-free, but patients usually need to spend the night in a hospital or sleep center.
During a sleep study, doctors monitor:
If enlarged tonsils or adenoids are thought to be causing the apnea, the doctor will refer your child to an ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT). The ENT might decide that an operation called an adenotonsillectomy is needed to remove the tonsils and adenoids. This often is an effective treatment for OSA.
If tonsils and adenoids are not the cause of OSA or if symptoms of OSA remain after adenotonsillectomy, a doctor may recommend continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy. In CPAP therapy, a person wears a mask that covers the nose and mouth during sleep. The mask is connected to a machine that continuously pumps air into it to open the airways.
When excess weight is a factor in OSA, it's important to work with a doctor on diet changes, exercise, and other safe weight-loss methods. In mild cases of OSA, doctors may monitor a child for a period of time to see if symptoms improve before deciding on treatment.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: November 2014
|American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) AASM strives to increase awareness of sleep disorders in public and professional communities.|
|American Sleep Apnea Association (ASAA) The ASAA is dedicated to reducing injury, disability, and death from sleep apnea and to enhancing the well-being of those affected by this common disorder.|
|Enlarged Adenoids Often, tonsils and adenoids are surgically removed at the same time. So, what are adenoids exactly?|
|Having Your Tonsils Taken Out Sometimes tonsils need to be removed, but how is it done? Find out in this article for kids.|
|All About Sleep Getting enough sleep can be a problem for children of any age. Read this article to learn tips on bedtime schedules and routines for your child.|
|A to Z: Hypertrophy, Tonsillar (Enlarged Tonsils) Tonsillar hypertrophy, or enlarged tonsils, can happen due to an ongoing (chronic) condition or a temporary effect of an infection.|
|Tonsils and Tonsillectomies Everybody's heard of tonsils, but not everyone knows what tonsils do in the body or why they may need to be removed. Find out here.|
|Tonsils and Tonsillectomies Not everyone knows what tonsils do or why they may need to be removed. Knowing the facts can help alleviate the fears of both parents and kids facing a tonsillectomy.|
|When Being Overweight Is a Health Problem A couple of pounds of extra body fat are not a health risk for most people. But when people are severely overweight, it can cause health problems.|
|X-Ray Exam: Neck A neck X-ray can help diagnose many conditions, including stridor, croup, hoarseness due to swelling in or near the airways, and problems with tonsils and adenoids.|
|What Sleep Is and Why All Kids Need It When you get a good night's sleep, it's like giving your body a tiny vacation. Find out the scoop on sleep in this article for kids.|
|Common Sleep Problems Sleep problems can keep some teens awake at night even when they want to sleep. If that sounds like you, find out what you can do.|
|Enlarged Adenoids Often, tonsils and adenoids are surgically removed at the same time. Though some kids need surgery, enlarged adenoids are normal in others.|
|Apnea of Prematurity Apnea of prematurity (AOP) is a condition in which premature infants stop breathing for 15 to 20 seconds during sleep. It's frightening while it's happening, but AOP usually goes away on its own as a baby matures.|
|Sleep and Newborns Newborn babies may wake up often at night. Their internal time clocks are not yet set, and their small stomachs are often hungry for milk.|
|All About Adenoids Just what are adenoids? And why do kids sometimes have to get their adenoids removed? Get the answers here.|
|Sleep Problems in Teens Does your teen have trouble falling asleep at night? Is he or she sleepy during the day? Find out if it's just a normal part of adolescence, or if something else is to blame.|
|Common Diagnoses in the NICU Learn about common NICU conditions, what causes them, how they're diagnosed, how they're treated, and how long babies might stay in the unit.|
|Snoring Are you a kid who snores? Find out why some people are such noisy sleepers in this article for kids.|
What to expect when coming to Akron Children's
For healthcare providers and nurses
Residency & Fellowships, Medical Students, Nursing and Allied Health
For prospective employees and career-seekers
Our online community that provides inspirational stories and helpful information.