If you’re like us, when you think of the typical sufferer of sleep apnea, you might imagine an older gentleman, perhaps with a beer belly. But the condition strikes all ages, and, in fact, Dr. Cindy Jon, a pediatric pulmonologist affiliated with Children’s Memorial Hermann, has seen an increase in cases among children over the past few years.
Sleep apnea is a condition that disrupts sleep, which can have serious consequences. “Sleep is very important for children,” says Dr. Jon. “If they’re not getting proper sleep, they’re not going to function well during the day.” Infants require up to 18 hours of sleep a day, and school-aged children need 10 to 12 hours.
Enlarged tonsils or adenoids are the leading cause of sleep apnea among 3- to 8-year-olds, while among teenagers, weight gain is the most common culprit. The condition can present with snoring, gasping during sleep, pauses in breathing, and overall restless sleep. It can be difficult to distinguish between habitual snoring and obstructive sleep apnea, so Dr. Jon recommends that a child with these symptoms undergo a sleep study in a qualified pediatric sleep center for proper diagnosis. “It is important to identify and treat obstructive sleep apnea promptly,” Dr. Jon advises, “because there may be cognitive and behavioral consequences such as poor school performance and hyperactivity.”
Once obstructive sleep apnea is identified, Dr. Jon evaluates her young patients for the cause. In the case of enlarged tonsils and adenoids, an ear/nose/throat specialist might be brought in to remove excess tissue. With other patients, she may recommend a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine to assist the patient with breathing throughout the night. “Either way,” says Dr. Jon, “the goal of treatment is to normalize their sleep and improve their daytime and school performance.” The difference can be tremendous.