Children With Sleep Apnea Face Health and Cognitive Issues

Is your hyperactive child having trouble learning at school? Does your son constantly toss and turn at night? Can you hear your daughter's irregular breathing during sleep?

All of these symptoms could be the result of obstructive sleep apnea, a serious but treatable disorder that can lead to health problems, behavioral issues and learning difficulties in children and adolescents.

"One to 4 percent of all children have obstructive sleep apnea, but many go undiagnosed and untreated because people do not recognize the symptoms," says Dr. Rochelle Goldberg, director of sleep medicine services at Main Line Health and an associate professor at Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

Further complicating matters is that some children with sleep apnea are misdiagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder because, unlike adults, disrupted sleep makes kids hyperactive, experts say.

"As many as 25 percent of children diagnosed with ADHD may in fact have obstructive sleep apnea," says Tracy Nasca, executive director of the American Sleep Apnea Association, a nonprofit organization based in the District of Columbia.

Blocked Airways Impede Breathing

Sleep apnea is caused by a blockage of the airway, usually when the soft tissue in the rear of the throat collapses and closes during sleep. People with untreated sleep apnea stop breathing repeatedly during sleep, often waking or almost waking multiple times during the night.

"The result is fragmented sleep that can impact every aspect of your life," Goldberg says.

Sleep apnea can occur at any age, but the prime ages for children to develop the condition is between 4 to 7 years, when the tonsils and adenoids are largest, Goldberg says. Those most at risk include males, children with special needs and youth who are obese.

"With increasing childhood obesity comes increasing risk for sleep apnea," Goldberg says, noting that obesity among youth has skyrocketed in the past three decades. Obesity rates in children ages 6 to 11 increased from 7 to 18 percent from 1980 to 2012, while the rate in youth ages 12 to 19 jumped from 5 to 21 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hyperactivity in Sleepy Children

Diagnosing sleep disorders in children requires special expertise because youngsters respond differently than adults when it comes to a lack of sleep, says Amber McAfee, a pediatric nurse practitioner at the Sleep Center at Seattle Children's Hospital.

"Adults with sleep apnea may feel sluggish during the day," McAfee says. "But children with sleep apnea are quite active and may even be hyperactive. They may also start experiencing learning difficulties at school because they can't remember things as well."

Adds Goldberg: "Unfortunately some of these kids get mislabeled by their well-meaning teachers as having ADHD and start taking medications they don't need." She advises parents to seek the expertise of a pediatrician and pediatric sleep specialist before assuming their child has ADHD.

In recent years, more parents have been requesting sleep evaluations for children diagnosed with ADHD, McAfee says. "We have seen an improvement in hyperactivity after treatment and we have parents who report taking their children off medication for ADHD because their hyperactivity was related to sleep apnea," she says.

Nighttime symptoms between children and adults vary, too. Kids are more likely to be restless and wake up. "The symptoms are a little more subtle in kids because their brains are responsive," McAfee says. "The brain alerts them that they aren't breathing well."

Some children may sleep with their head hanging from the end of the bed as a way to extend their neck and open their air pathway, Goldberg says. At times, children with sleep apnea may experience increased bedwetting or a recurrence of bedwetting.

Expert Diagnosis and Treatment

Experts recommend that parents whose children are experiencing sleep problems or sudden difficulties at school visit a certified pediatric sleep specialist for evaluation and testing, including an overnight sleep study, to rule out or confirm a diagnosis.

"We do a lot of hand holding and comforting," says Nasca, who assures parents that pediatric specialists can provide a child-friendly diagnostic experience. "Many pediatric sleep labs allow a parent to spend the night in the testing room and also encourage the children to bring a favorite 'blankie' or stuffed animal to create a more home-like sleep setting."

At Seattle Children's Hospital, parents are welcome to stay at the Sleep Center while their children are monitored overnight. Monitors gather information about brain activity, oxygen levels, heart rate, sleep quality and stages, eye movement, air flow, limb movement and more.

"I tell kids they're going to sleep like a robot for one night," McAfee says. The Sleep Clinic conducts approximately 200 sleep studies a month.

For many youngsters, surgically removing the tonsil and adenoids can resolve sleep apnea. Children who are overweight or obese may also need to focus on weight loss, experts say.

Some children find relief by wearing a nasal mask that uses continuous positive airway pressure, also known as CPAP. "CPAP is 100 percent effective in improving your breathing," McAfee says. "But only about 40 percent of the pediatric population wear the mask effectively through the night."