What are the Signs of Sleep Apnea in Children and Teenagers?

Young boy asleep in class

Starting school can be a difficult transition for K-12 students, especially after a summer of staying up late and sleeping in.

The transition from a summer sleep schedule to a school-year sleep schedule can result in a sleepy child, but it’s important for parents to be aware in case there is a deeper issue going on, such as sleep apnea.

It’s crucial as a parent to know the signs of sleep apnea, especially during the busy school year.

Sleep apnea is a disorder that can affect people of all ages, including children and teenagers. It causes interruptions in breathing during sleep, resulting in poor quality of sleep and daytime fatigue.

It’s important to know the signs of sleep apnea so your child can excel during school, both educationally and socially.

With early detection and treatment, sleep apnea can be effectively managed.

What Types of Sleep Apnea Do Children or Teenagers Experience?

Children and teens can experience both Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) and Central Sleep Apnea (CSA).

Obstructive Sleep Apnea is the most common type of sleep apnea in children and teenagers. It occurs when the airway becomes blocked due to enlarged adenoids or tonsils.

Central Sleep Apnea is caused by a problem in the brain’s ability to control breathing and is much less common in this age group.

Both types of sleep apnea can cause a wide range of health problems. This can include cognitive and behavioral problems, poor growth and development, and high blood pressure.

Why is Sleep Important for Children and Teenagers?

During sleep, hormones are released that help with cell and tissue repair. This aids in the body’s growth process, and it helps with regular eating and maintaining a healthy weight. Sleep can help boost immunity and reduce the risk of developing certain diseases.

Sleep is essential to maintain physical and mental health. Lack of sleep can result in the following:

  • Trouble focusing during school
  • Issues with information processing
  • Falling asleep during class
  • Mood swings
  • Poor academic performance
  • Poor relationships with peers and family members

Patient Story

Kynadee, who started Kindergarten in 2022, had prolonged signs of daytime sleepiness and moodiness.

“We started noticing around two o’clock she was very grumpy even though we thought she had a great night’s sleep. Obviously, she did not,” Michelle, Kynadee’s mother, said.

After being referred by their healthcare provider, Michelle took Kynadee to do a sleep study. While she slept, Kynadee was monitored for changes in oxygen and the number of apneic episodes she had during her sleep.

The results came back, and Kynadee was officially diagnosed with sleep apnea due to the size of her tonsils and adenoids. She was referred to Dr. Taylor Fordham Jr., who is an Otolaryngology Specialist, at CHRISTUS Children’s in San Antonio, TX.

Then, she underwent surgery to remove her tonsils and help her airway stay open while she slept.

After her surgery, Kynadee’s breathing and sleep improved dramatically. Her voice even changed because she was not straining to keep her airway open.

Kynadee finished Kindergarten with significant improvement in activities like retaining memory of her Sight Words, which helped her ability to read.

If your child is struggling with sleep, visit the Sleep Center at CHRISTUS Children’s to see a sleep specialist. It’s the only hospital-based sleep program in the San Antonio Metro area.

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What are the Signs and Symptoms of Sleep Apnea in Children and Teenagers?

Signs and symptoms of sleep apnea can include:

  • Loud snoring
  • Obstructive breathing episodes during sleep
  • Abrupt awakenings during the night
  • Morning headaches or difficulty waking up
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness, fatigue, or unexplained anger
  • Difficulty concentrating or paying attention to tasks for extended periods
  • Unexplained weight change
  • Behavioral problems, such as being wild and aggressive

In some cases, the child may have pauses in breathing during sleep that can last 10 seconds or longer. These pauses are known as apneic events and can be detected by a doctor using an overnight sleep study. If your child or teenager has any of the above symptoms, seek medical advice.

What Causes Sleep Apnea in Children and Teenagers?

Obstruction of the airways while sleeping causes sleep apnea in children and teenagers.

One common cause of sleep apnea in children or teens is enlarged tonsils or adenoids.

Other possible causes include obesity, allergies, and sinus problems that lead to swelling of the upper airway tissues.

In some cases, a deviated septum, which is an abnormal curvature of the nasal septum, can lead to sleep apnea.

What are Some Tips to Prevent Sleep Apnea in Children and Teenagers?

Treating sleep apnea can include the following:

  1. Weight loss: Studies have shown that reducing body fat helps reduce the severity of sleep apnea symptoms. Excess weight can put pressure on your throat and cause it to collapse during sleep. This blocks the airway, causing apnea episodes. By losing weight, you may be able to open your airway and improve your breathing while you sleep.
  2. Avoid allergens: Dust, mold, pet dander, and pollen can cause constriction in the airway and lead to difficulty breathing while sleeping. By avoiding these triggers or reducing exposure to them, it may be possible to reduce the severity of sleep apnea symptoms.
  3. Nasal breathing: Nasal breathing can help prevent sleep apnea in children. Nasal breathing improves airway health and reduces the risk of blockage when asleep. Using a nasal strip or ensuring that the child’s nostrils are properly hydrated with saline solution can help improve breathing.
  4. Positional therapy: Positional therapy can be a helpful tool in reducing sleep apnea symptoms in children and teenagers. Positional therapy encourages patients to sleep on their sides. Positional Therapy helps reduce snoring and improve breathing patterns during sleep.

What is the Difference Between Insomnia and Sleep Apnea in Children and Teenagers?

Insomnia and sleep apnea are two distinct sleep disorders that can affect children. Insomnia is when you have difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or both. This can lead to impaired daytime functioning.

Sleep apnea is a disorder in which breathing pauses occur during sleep due to an obstruction in the airways. This can lead to interrupted breathing patterns and decreased oxygen levels during sleep.

With sleep apnea, however, this obstruction leads to breathing pauses throughout the night which can disrupt normal sleeping patterns.

Stress, anxiety, or environmental factors cause insomnia. Sleep apnea is usually the result of physical issues related to the airways.

How Does a Doctor Diagnose Sleep Apnea in Children and Teenagers?

The diagnosis of sleep apnea in children begins with a physical exam and medical history. A child’s parent may fill out a questionnaire or do an interview. A doctor may also order various tests to help rule out other conditions and confirm sleep apnea.

These can include:

  • An electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure brain activity during sleep.
  • An overnight sleep study (polysomnogram) to measure breathing patterns and oxygen levels
  • A computerized tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the head to look for any underlying physical abnormalities.

Pediatric Sleep Clinic

Pediatric Sleep Medicine

Pediatric Sleep Clinic

CHRISTUS Children’s Sleep Clinic is the only sleep program in the San Antonio metro area that is specifically designed to perform sleep studies for pediatric and adolescent patients (newborns up to age 17). Our goal is to ensure that the Sleep Center is well prepared to diagnose, evaluate, and treat the full spectrum of sleep and its disorders.

CHRISTUS Children's