Mar 1, 2004 Table of Contents

Please note: This information was current at the time of publication. But medical information is always changing, and some information given here may be out of date. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education Web site.

Information from Your Family Doctor

Sleep Apnea in Children

Am Fam Physician. 2004 Mar 1;69(5):1159-1160.

Why does my child snore?

Snoring happens during sleep when the throat muscles relax and the airway narrows. When the throat muscles relax, the nose is blocked. Snoring is common in children and may be a cause for concern.

Large tonsils and adenoids are the most common reason a child snores. When children have a lot of upper respiratory infections, their tonsils and adenoids get bigger.

Less common causes are nasal blockage and obesity. Colds, allergies, or other medical problems can cause nasal blockage. Obesity causes snoring more often in adults, but having too much fat in the neck also can affect breathing in children.

What is sleep apnea?

When your child gasps and stops breathing during snoring, this is called sleep apnea (say: ap-nee-uh). Apnea, which means lack of breathing, is more common in adults. The signs and symptoms of sleep apnea may be different in children.

How do I know my child has sleep apnea?

Your child may have sleep apnea if he or she does any of the following:

  • Snores loudly

  • Breathes through the mouth

  • Gasps or stops breathing when asleep

  • Wakes up often during the night

  • Is often restless during sleep

  • Wets the bed

If your doctor thinks your child has sleep apnea, lab tests and x-rays probably won't be necessary. Your doctor may recommend a test called a sleep study to see if your child has sleep apnea.

What will happen if my child has sleep apnea?

Here are some things that may happen to children who have sleep apnea:

  • Not getting the amount of sleep they need

  • Wetting the bed

  • Acting differently than normal

  • Failing to grow at the normal rate

  • Possibly developing heart failure (only in the most severe cases)

When children don't get the amount of sleep they need, they become moody, don't pay attention, and can cause problems at home and at school. Their schoolwork and sports abilities may get worse. They may lose their overall sense of well-being.

Children with sleep apnea may lack energy. They may prefer to sit in front of the TV instead of joining in school and home activities. This can lead to weight gain and obesity, which make the problems of sleep apnea even worse.

Another problem of sleep apnea in children is called failure to thrive. Growth hormone is released when a child sleeps at night, and sleep apnea can interrupt this process. This means that some younger children with sleep apnea will not gain a normal amount of weight and height.

Behavior problems have been related to sleep apnea, specifically ADHD. It is also common for children with sleep apnea to wet the bed.

How is sleep apnea treated?

If your child is overweight or has allergies, your doctor probably will treat these conditions first. If your child's sleep apnea doesn't get better, your doctor may want to remove your child's tonsils and adenoids in an operation.


This handout is provided to you by your family doctor and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other health-related information is available from the AAFP online at http://familydoctor.org.

This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.

Copyright © 2004 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
This content is owned by the AAFP. A person viewing it online may make one printout of the material and may use that printout only for his or her personal, non-commercial reference. This material may not otherwise be downloaded, copied, printed, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any medium, whether now known or later invented, except as authorized in writing by the AAFP. Contact afpserv@aafp.org for copyright questions and/or permission requests.

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