Sleep Apnea in Kids: Recognising the Symptoms

Snoring is not an unusual symptom in children. As many as 10% of all kids snore on a nightly basis, according to the National Sleep Foundation. But when snoring accompanies symptoms such as gasping for air, very loud snoring or taking short pauses in breathing, your child could be experiencing sleep apnea. This condition causes your child to experience pauses in breathing while asleep.

Three sleep apnea types exist in children:

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)—The most common of the three types that typically occurs when something blocks a child’s airway — usually the tongue or soft palate at the back of the throat.

Central Sleep Apnea—This type is most common in premature infants whose immature brains may not adequately control breathing.

Mixed Sleep Apnea—This type is a combination of central and OSA where a child can experience pauses in breathing when either awake or asleep.

An estimated 1-3% of non-obese children below the age of 8 experience OSA, according to CINAHL Information Systems. Obesity can increase the risk for experiencing OSA by 4-5 times because added weight can increase the amount of tissue in the neck area, which obstructs a child’s airway. In the past 20 years, obesity-related hospital discharges for sleep apnea in kids ages 6-17 have increased by 436%, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

However, some children are born with an unusually shaped airway that results in sleep apnea. These children may be normal or even under weight.

Symptoms that could indicate your child is experiencing sleep apnea include:

  • Audible pauses or gasps in breathing
  • Being extremely hard to awaken
  • Constant daytime sleepiness
  • Excessive restlessness that causes your child to sleep in unusual, contorted positions
  • Heavy sweating during sleep
  • Loud snoring that occurs nightly or nearly every night
  • A speaking voice that sounds nasal or a child that seems unable to breathe through their nose even while awake.

Sleep apnea symptoms should not be ignored because they can affect a child’s growth and school performance. Talk to your child’s paediatrician about his or her symptoms. The paediatrician may recommend a sleep study, where your child’s breathing, brain waves, and heartbeat are monitored during sleep.

While many cases of childhood sleep apnea will resolve on their own, others may require interventions such as removing the tonsils or adenoids that obstruct breathing. A physician may also recommend your child wear an oral appliance that keeps the tongue from blocking his or her airway.

While adults can also experience sleep apnea, researchers are not clear whether having OSA as a child increases the risk for having sleep apnea as an adult (CINAHL).


  • Caple, C, and T Schub, “Obstructive Sleep Apnea In Children.” (2012): CINAHL Plus with Full Text
  • Obesity and Sleep.
    National Sleep Foundation
  • Sleep Apnea & Children: Causes & Treatment.
    National Sleep Foundation
  • Snoring in Children: Causes & Treatments.
    Nemours Foundation.

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