Sleep Apnea

Obstructed sleep apnea in children occurs when your child experiences brief pauses in their breathing pattern that last from a few seconds to minutes, resulting in your child feeling tired and sleepy the next day.

 
Types of Sleep Apnea in Children
There are several types of apnea in children:
  • Obstructive sleep apnea: This is the most common type of apnea and is usually caused by a blockage of the airway due to enlarged tonsils and adenoidal tissue near the nasal passages.
  • Central sleep apnea: This happens when the part of the brain that controls breathing doesn’t start or maintain the breathing process properly. Common in very premature infants.
  • Mixed sleep apnea: A combination of central and obstructive apnea, mixed apnea is usually a sign of an immature breathing pattern and may occur when a child is awake or asleep.
 
How is Sleep Apnea in Children Diagnosed?

A sleep medicine expert can help get to the bottom of your child’s sleep issues with an overnight sleep test called polysomnography, which will measure your child’s quality, quantity and breathing patterns during sleep.

 
Treating Children with Sleep Apnea
Depending on the results from your child’s sleep study, treatments for apnea may include:
  • medications: to relieve nasal congestion and allergies
  • increased activity and better nutrition: recommended for overweight children
  • continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP): a nasal and/or mouth mask that forces air to send oxygenated air into the air passages and lungs
  • surgery: to remove large tonsils and adenoids that make it difficult to breath

Sleep and Your Preschooler

Establishing a Bedtime Routine

Preschoolers sleep about 10 to 12 hours during each 24-hour period, but there's no need to be rigid about which 10 to 12 hours these are. The most important thing is to help kids develop good habits for getting to sleep.

A bedtime routine is a great way to ensure that your preschooler gets enough sleep. Here are a few things to keep in mind when establishing one:

  • Include a winding-down period during the half hour before bedtime.
  • Stick to a bedtime, alerting your child both half an hour and 10 minutes beforehand.
  • Set fixed times for going to bed, waking up, and taking naps.
  • Keep consistent playtimes and mealtimes.
  • Avoid stimulants, such as caffeine, near bedtime.
  • Make the bedroom quiet, cozy, and conducive to sleeping.
  • Use the bed only for sleeping — not for playing or watching TV.
  • Limit food and drink before bedtime.
  • Allow your child to choose which pajamas to wear, which stuffed animal to take to bed, etc.
  • Consider playing soft, soothing music.
  • Tuck your child into bed snugly for a feeling of security.

A Note on Naps

Most preschoolers do still need naps during the day. They tend to be very active — running around, playing, going to school, and exploring their surroundings — so it's a good idea to give them a special opportunity to slow down. Even if your child can't fall asleep, try to set aside some quiet time during the day for relaxing. (And you'll probably benefit from a break too!)

The best way to encourage napping is to set up a routine for your child, just as you do for bedtime. Your preschooler, not wanting to miss out on any of the action, may resist a nap, but it's important to keep the routine firm and consistent. Explain that this is quiet time and that you want your child to start out in bed, but that it's OK to play in the bedroom quietly if he or she can't sleep.

How long should naps last? For however long you feel your child needs to get some rest. Usually, about an hour is sufficient. But there will be times when your child has been going full tilt and will need a longer nap, and others when you hear your child chattering away, playing through the entire naptime.

Sleeping Problems

Preschoolers may have nightmares, or night terrors, and there may be many nights when they have trouble falling asleep.

It may help if you create a "nighttime kit" to keep near your child's bed for these times. That kit might include a flashlight, a favorite book, and a cassette or CD to play. Explain the kit, then put it in a special place where your child can get to it in the middle of the night.

Objects like stuffed animals and blankets also can help kids feel safe. If your child doesn't have a favorite toy and getting to sleep has become consistently difficult, then it might be worth going out together to pick out a warm, soft blanket or stuffed animal.

Some parents get into the habit of lying down next to their young kids until they fall asleep. While this may do the trick temporarily, it won't help sleeping patterns in the long term. It's important to provide comfort and reassurance, but kids need to fall asleep independently for when parents aren't around. If you establish a routine where you have to be there for your child to go to sleep, then it will be difficult for both of you — and unfair to your child — if you start leaving beforehand.

If you're worried about your child's sleeping patterns, talk with your doctor. Although there isn't one sure way to raise a good sleeper, most kids have the ability to sleep well and work through any sleeping problems. The key is to try from early on to establish healthy bedtime habits.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: September 2011