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Sleep apnea in children is more common than you may think. Here are the warning signs

We expect to miss out on some sleep when we have babies and children, it just comes with the job.

However, sometimes there's a physiological reason your child isn't getting the restful sleep they need.

We spoke with Dr Paul Coceancig about sleep apnea in children and the warning signs you should look out for.

sleep apnea in kids
Sleep apnea is more common in children than you may think

IAH: It's not so common knowledge that children can suffer from sleep apnea, how common is it in kids?

Dr Paul: Sleep apnea is surprisingly more common in children than you may think… their airways are so small that they can be really vulnerable to common coughs and colds… much more than we as adults may experience from the same community viruses.

Croup is really common in small children - and distressing for parents when they get woken up by their distressed child unable to breathe. A quick trip to the local hospital for some special medicine is often all that is needed.

But there is another kind of night time airway blockage that is even more common. In adults it develops into loud snoring, and eventually obstructive sleep apnea. But in kids it’s much harder to see. But it’s still there.

It’s called paediatric sleep apnea… and it’s the major reason why we get tonsils removed, and all of it is caused by a small jaw pushing the back of the tongue into our upper airways.

We clear tonsils to help open the right airway in the throat, but should we be doing more?

IAH: What are some of the warning signs that a child may be suffering from sleep apnea?

Dr Paul: Symptoms of sleep apnea in children can include snoring, gasping or choking during sleep, bed wetting, night terrors, restless sleep, and daytime sleepiness, poor school performance, and behavioral problems.

We can often point to the sleepy child at the back of the classroom, and blame their inattention or laziness for their falling grades.

But the science says that we should be looking at the quality of their sleep and the real possibility that they might just have chronic sleep apnea as the cause of their problems

IAH: How do we get a diagnosis?

Dr Paul: If you think your child may be suffering with sleep apnea I would recommend you consult a healthcare professional who can conduct a sleep study to determine, diagnose and advise on treatment and management options. The best people are called paediatric sleep physicians.

These are special doctors who your paediatrician or GP can refer you towards.

IAH: If left untreated, what are some of the health implications?

Dr Paul: If left untreated, sleep apnea in children can lead to developmental and behavioral issues, including problems with growth, attention, and learning.

Tonsil problems. Blocked nose. Sinus allergies. Open mouth breathing. And surprisingly too - a bad bite - are all features of children that we see who have obstructive sleep apnea. Fixing tonsils and seeing the orthodontist won’t exactly help fix the fundamental problem - genetically inherited small jaws - but some of the fundamental secondary effects can at least be managed.

As long as all the doctors are on the same team.

IAH: What does treatment involve?

Dr Paul: Treatment for sleep apnea in children starts with recognising that sleep apnea is occurring. You can see a paediatric sleep physician to help get that diagnosis.

The second step is finding out the cause - and the common culprit is the small jaw.

It’s the small jaw that leads to the crowded teeth and the big tonsils and the blocked noses we see in children who have sleep apnea.

Early on, rational advice may include the removal of tonsils or adenoids, weight management, or the use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine during sleep. For this very young age group, corrective jaw surgery is really not an option. Not until they turn 11 or 12 anyway.

Dr Paul Coceancig
Dr Paul Coceancig

Dr Paul Coceancig, Australian Facial Reconstruction Surgeon, is a leader in offering prevention and cure for sleep apnea in adolescents and adults.



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