Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition in which a child briefly stops breathing while sleeping. These pauses in breathing may occur many times in a night, disrupting the child’s sleep. He or she may wake up gasping for air.

Obstructive sleep apnea happens because of a blockage in the upper airway. The upper airway is the passage through the nose and mouth to the windpipe and lungs.

The muscles in the head and neck help keep the upper airway open. When a child falls asleep, these muscles tend to relax. This allows tissues in the airway to fold closer together, which may cause the passage to close completely.

Because obstructive sleep apnea makes it hard for air to flow in and out of the lungs, your child may have less oxygen in the blood than normal. If this pattern continues, your child's lungs and heart may suffer permanent damage. Chronic sleep apnea can also lead to poor growth and development.

That’s why it’s very important to have obstructive sleep apnea diagnosed and treated as soon as possible. Fortunately, the Division of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at Cooper University Health Care has a team of ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists who are experts in managing this condition.

Risk Factors for Obstructive Sleep Apnea in Children

Obstructive sleep apnea in children is most commonly found in children between the ages of 3 and 6. The most common causes or risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea in kids include:

  • Enlarged tonsils and adenoids: Located at the back and sides of the throat, these glands can grow too large, or an infection can cause them to swell, blocking the airway during sleep
  • Being overweight
  • A tumor or growth in the airway
  • Certain syndromes or birth defects, such as Down syndrome and Pierre-Robin syndrome
  • Nasal congestion

Symptoms of Obstructive Sleep Apnea in Children

  • Symptoms vary from child to child, and can include:
  • Loud snoring or noisy breathing (gasping or snorting) during sleep
  • Pauses in breathing during sleep, lasting a few seconds up to a minute
  • Mouth breathing
  • A nasal voice
  • Restlessness during sleep
  • Too much daytime sleepiness or irritability
  • Hyperactivity during the day
  • Behavioral problems due to lack of sleep

How Sleep Apnea in Children Is Diagnosed

The healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms, health history, and sleep patterns, and give your child a physical exam. Your child may also be referred to a sleep expert in order to have what’s called a sleep study.

A sleep study is the best way to diagnose obstructive sleep apnea. The test may be hard to do with younger children, however. For the study, your child may need to sleep overnight in a special lab where he or she will be connected to monitors that check:

  • Brain activity
  • Electrical activity of the heart
  • Oxygen and often carbon dioxide content in the blood
  • Movement of the chest and abdominal wall
  • Muscle activity
  • Amount of air flowing through the nose and mouth

How Sleep Apnea in Children Is Treated

Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, general health, and how severe the condition is. The treatment for obstructive sleep apnea is based on what’s causing it. It may include:

Surgery to remove enlarged tonsils and adenoids

Weight loss: If your child is overweight, losing weight may ease symptoms.

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP): While sleeping, your child wears a special mask that delivers a steady stream of air to keep the airway open

Avoiding secondhand smoke, indoor pollutants, and allergens: This is important for children who also have nasal congestion

Why Choose Us to Treat Sleep Apnea in Children

The fellowship-trained otolaryngologists (ear, nose, and throat specialists) at Cooper University Health Care are uniquely qualified to diagnose and treat sleep apnea in children.

They work closely with Cooper’s Sleep Lab to ensure timely, accurate diagnosis, provide expert medical and surgical treatments when indicated, and collaborate with your child’s primary care physician to ensure that care is carefully coordinated.

In addition, our advanced practice nurses (APNs) work closely with you and your child to teach you how to use therapeutic devices such as CPAP.

Contact Us

To learn more about the services available in the Division of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery or to schedule an appointment, please call 856.342.3113