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Sleep apnoea (also known as OSA, which stands for Obstructive Sleep Apnoea) is a serious sleep disorder where the person sleeping stops breathing for anything from a few seconds to up to a minute.

Snoring is a very common symptom of sleep apnoea in children (see full list below). Although occasional snoring is perfectly normal in children, where snoring is continuous (i.e. almost every night and for extended periods) it is worth investigating the possibility of sleep apnoea.

Sleep is very important to early childhood development, with most children spending almost half of their time asleep in their early years. Anything that interrupts natural sleep patterns, like sleep apnoea, should be treated at an early stage to avoid developmental issues and possible resulting problems in adulthood.

In adults sleep apnoea is most commonly linked to obesity and/or smoking and alcohol. In children, although obesity is a risk factor for sleep apnoea (up to half of all overweight/obese children are affected by the condition as against less than 5% of normal weight children), other factors are important.

The commonest cause of the condition in children is enlarged tonsils or adenoids (the medical term for this is ‘adenotonsillar hypertrophy’). Tonsils and adenoids naturally grow quickly in the early stages of a child’s life and then tend to shrink with age. With some children the enlargement of these can restrict breathing while they are asleep, in some cases causing problems breathing or even swallowing food.

Other conditions which can lead to sleep apnoea in children include hay fever (allergic rhinitis) or other nasal obstruction and some medical conditions such as muscle weakness, abnormalities of the mouth or jaw, cleft palate and any previous surgery in the upper airways. Sufferers of Downs Syndrome and Achondroplasia are also prone to sleep apnoea.

Possible symptoms of sleep apnoea to look out for include:

  • Gasps or snorts while sleeping
  • Persistent and/or loud snoring
  • Sleeping in unusual positions
  • Breathing through the mouth
  • Sleepiness during the day
  • Bed wetting
  • Sweating while sleeping
  • Difficulty getting out of bed in the morning
  • Headaches (especially in the morning)
  • Blocked nose
  • Listlessness or irritability
  • Difficulty swallowing

Sleep apnoea is diagnosed and treated in children in exactly the same way as in adults – please see our separate section here