Pediatric sleep-disordered breathing (SDB) is a general term for breathing difficulties occurring during sleep. SDB can range from frequent loud snoring to obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a condition where part, or all, of the airway is blocked repeatedly during sleep. When a child’s breathing is disrupted during sleep, the body thinks the child is choking. The heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, the brain is aroused, and sleep is disrupted. Oxygen levels in the blood can also drop.
Approximately 10 percent of children snore regularly, and about two to four percent of children experience OSA. Recent studies indicate that mild SDB or snoring may cause many of the same problems as OSA in children.
Potential symptoms and consequences of untreated pediatric SDB may include:
A common physical cause of airway narrowing contributing to SDB is enlarged tonsils and adenoids. Overweight children are at increased risk for SDB because fat deposits around the neck and throat can also narrow the airway. Children with abnormalities involving the lower jaw or tongue, or neuromuscular deficits such as cerebral palsy, have a higher risk of developing SDB.
If you notice any of the symptoms described in this article, have your child checked by an ENT (ear, nose, and throat) specialist, or otolaryngologist. Sometimes physicians will make a diagnosis of SDB based on history and physical examination. In other cases, like children suspected of having severe OSA due to craniofacial syndromes, morbid obesity, neuromuscular disorders, or for children less than three-years-old, additional testing such as a sleep test may be recommended.
The sleep study, or polysomnography (PSG), is an objective test for SDB. Wires are attached to the head and body to monitor brain waves, muscle tension, eye movement, breathing, and the level of oxygen in the blood. The test is not painful and is generally performed in a sleep laboratory or hospital. Sleep tests occasionally produce inaccurate results, especially in children. Borderline or normal sleep test results may still result in a diagnosis of SDB based on parental observations and clinical evaluation.
Enlarged tonsils and adenoids are a common cause for SDB. Surgical removal of the tonsils and adenoids, called tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy (T&A), is generally considered the first line treatment for pediatric SDB if the symptoms are significant, and the tonsils and adenoids are enlarged. Of the more than 500,000 pediatric T&A procedures performed in the United States each year, the majority treat SDB. Many children with OSA show both short- and long-term improvement in their sleep and behavior after T&A.
Not every child with snoring needs to undergo T&A. If the SDB symptoms are mild or intermittent, academic performance and behavior is not an issue, the tonsils are small, or the child is near puberty (because tonsils and adenoids often shrink at puberty), it may be recommended that a child with SDB be watched conservatively and treated surgically only if symptoms worsen.
Recent studies have shown that some children have persistent SDB after T&A. A post-operative sleep study may be necessary, especially in children with persistent symptoms or increased risk factors for persistent apnea after T&A such as obesity, craniofacial anomalies or neuromuscular problems. Additional treatments such as weight loss, the use of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), or additional surgical procedures may sometimes be required.
Copyright 2021. American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery Foundation. Last reviewed April 2020.