About obstructive sleep apnoea
If your child has obstructive sleep apnoea, it means that they stop breathing when they’re asleep.
The most common cause of obstructive sleep apnoea in children is enlarged adenoids or tonsillitis. Obstructive sleep apnoea is also linked to obesity, allergies and hay fever.
Children with small jaws or medical conditions that cause low muscle tone, like Down syndrome, have an increased risk of obstructive sleep apnoea.
Obstructive sleep apnoea symptoms
Your child might have sleep apnoea symptoms at night while they’re sleeping. They might also have daytime symptoms.
Sleep-related symptoms include:
- pauses in breathing or choking, gasping sounds
- hot sweats during the night
- restlessness during sleep
- a tendency to sleep in unusual positions
Daytime symptoms include:
- tiredness and irritability
- morning headaches
- poor appetite
- blocked nose
- difficulty concentrating and sitting still
- mood changes.
Because children with sleep apnoea aren’t getting enough good-quality sleep, they often feel tired during the day. This can lead to behaviour and development problems, as well as problems at school.
Many children snore, but most children don’t have obstructive sleep apnoea.
Medical help: when to get it for children with obstructive sleep apnoea
If your child seems to be very tired during the day and you notice they’re also gasping and struggling for breath while sleeping, you should take them to your GP.
Tests for obstructive sleep apnoea
Your GP will look in your child’s throat to check their tonsils. The GP might send your child to an ear, nose and throat specialist if it looks like your child’s adenoids and tonsils are the cause of your child’s obstructive sleep apnoea.
To help the doctors work out whether it’s obstructive sleep apnoea, your child might need to undergo a sleep study – called a polysomnography. This involves staying overnight in hospital (with a parent), so that specialists can watch your child’s breathing, heart rate, oxygen level, and brain, eye and muscle activity while they’re sleeping.
Some children might have an oximetry test. This test also measures your child’s heart rate and oxygen levels while they’re sleeping, but it can be done at home.
These tests usually aren’t painful or uncomfortable.
Obstructive sleep apnoea treatment
Treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea depends on its cause.
Mild sleep apnoea often gets better without surgery over time.
If your child has severe sleep apnoea caused by enlarged adenoids or tonsils, doctors usually recommend tonsillectomy surgery to remove them.
If your doctor thinks hay fever or allergy is the cause, the doctor might suggest a trial of corticosteroid nose spray or antihistamines for a few weeks.
If obesity is part of the cause, your doctor will recommend a weight and exercise program.
Some children who have special medical conditions or severe cases of obstructive sleep apnoea might use a Continuous Positive Airways Pressure (CPAP) machine. This is a machine that delivers a constant flow of pressurised air into your child’s nose and throat through a mask. Your child wears the mask at night, and the pressurised air flow helps to keep their airways open during breathing. Your child will see a sleep specialist or respiratory physician to arrange this.