Sleep Apnea and Children: What Parents Should Know

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a type of breathing disorder which is a serious, potentially life-threatening condition characterized by brief interruptions of breathing, or snoring, during sleep. Snoring occurs when there is a partial obstruction of the airway which causes the palatal tissues to vibrate. Obstructive apnea occurs when the airway is completely blocked for certain periods of time. The condition normally impacts middle-aged men and women, but it can occur in children too. Sleep apnea poses a significant health risk for the patient in that it can lead to irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.

How does it affect children?

Statistically, 3% to 12% of all children snore, and around 1%-3% percent of all children have sleep apnea. The condition can cause cognitive difficulties such as poor attention span or bad behaviours in school due to lack of sleep, which in combination with a child’s inability to articulate their feelings can lead to hasty misdiagnosis of ADHD. Furthermore, it can lead to more health problems later in life, such as high blood pressure, diabetes etc.


While some of the symptoms of sleep apnea in children may take on the same basic form as adults (cessation of breathing during sleep), you may want to observe your child for these signs:

  • Poor performance at school
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Difficulty with concentration
  • Mouth breathing
  • Poor attention span
  • Behavioural issues
  • Bedwetting
  • Difficulty growing and gaining weight
Treatment options

Depending on the cause and severity of the obstruction, surgical treatments such as removing enlarged tonsils/adenoids or correct any preexisting malformations can be recommended. Another effective option is the use of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). The patient wears a tightly fitting nose mask which is strapped to the head and connected by a hose to an air compressor pump. The air is forced into the airway through the nasal passages to open up the airway. However, this method can be uncomfortable and can cause difficulty getting to sleep, nose and throat dryness, and other disadvantages. This method is often used for severe cases of sleep apnea. In cases of mild to moderate OSA, or in cases where patients refuse to wear the CPAP, perhaps oral appliances may be the treatment of choice.

How can dentists help?

Dentists have an important role to play in the treatment of patients with snoring and sleep apnea as we are often able to observe your child’s mouth development. We can provide your child with simple non-surgical, non-invasive plastic intra-oral appliances to wear at night to help solve their problem. These devices essentially stabilize the positioning of the jaw to help keep the airway clear. Today there are three types of appliances:

  1. Soft Palatal Life Appliance
  2. Tongue Retraining Device
  3. Mandibular Repositioner

Some of these appliances are very comfortable and effective. They can be recommended for older children whose facial bone growth is mostly complete. Want to learn more about sleep apnea in children? Speak with us at your next dental appointment!

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