Disordered breathing like obstructive sleep apnea can occur in children as well as in adults. An estimated three to 12 percent of children snore, and one to 10 percent of children suffer from obstructive sleep apnea. Most children with sleep apnea experience relatively mild symptoms and can outgrow the condition, but others are at risk for complications like cardiopulmonary disease, behavioral problems, and failure to thrive.
Sleep apnea is marked by pauses in breathing during sleep, and the condition often involves snoring, gasping, or choking as the person struggles to breathe during these episodes. In general, sleep apnea in children is caused by the enlargement of the adenoids or tonsils. This disorder can occur even in newborns and may create long-term health concerns if not treated. An enlarged tongue may also contribute to long-term snoring and sleep apnea in children.
Another increasingly common cause of obstructive sleep apnea in children is obesity. Children who are overweight or obese can have sleep-apnea-related breathing problems because of fat deposits in the neck and throat that narrow their airways. Alternatively, existing health conditions such as Down syndrome, a cleft palate, and cerebral palsy can create abnormalities in the tongue and jaw or may cause neuromuscular deficits, which may lead to sleep apnea and other breathing issues.
Sleep apnea in children is most common between ages three and six, when adenoids and tonsils are at their largest in relation to child-size airways. A child who snores chronically should be examined by a doctor or an otolaryngologist. He or she may suggest weight loss to reduce fat deposits or surgery to remove the enlarged tonsils or adenoids. For children who are not candidates for surgery or who experience persistent snoring even after surgery, doctors recommend wearing a sleep mask for at least three hours a night to reduce symptoms and promote healthy breathing.