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Obstructive sleep apnoea

0-18 years

If your child has obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), it means that she stops breathing when she’s asleep. She might snore, pause or struggle while breathing at night. You might notice that your child seems tired during the day. If you think your child has sleep apnoea, see your GP.

Causes of obstructive sleep apnoea

The most common cause of obstructive sleep apnoea in children is enlarged adenoids or tonsils. Obstructive sleep apnoea is also linked to obesity and allergies like hay fever.

Children with certain medical conditions that cause low muscle tone, like Down syndrome, or small jaws have an increased risk of obstructive sleep apnoea.

Obstructive sleep apnoea symptoms

Your child might have sleep apnoea symptoms at night while he’s sleeping and also during the day.

Sleep-related symptoms include:

  • snoring
  • pauses in breathing or choking, gasping sounds
  • hot sweats during the night
  • tendency to sleep in unusual positions
  • bed-wetting.

Daytime symptoms include:

  • tiredness and irritability 
  • morning headaches
  • poor appetite
  • blocked nose
  • difficulty concentrating and sitting still
  • mood changes.

Because children with sleep apnoea aren’t getting enough good-quality sleep, they often feel tired during the day. This can lead to behaviour and development problems, as well as problems at school.

Many children snore, but most don’t have sleep apnoea.

When to see a doctor about obstructive sleep apnoea

If your child snores, and you notice she’s also gasping and struggling for breath while sleeping, you should take her to your GP.

Tests for obstructive sleep apnoea

Your GP will look in your child’s throat to check his tonsils. The GP might send your child to an ear, nose and throat specialist if it looks like your child’s adenoids and tonsils are the cause.

To help the doctors work out whether it’s obstructive sleep apnoea, your child might need to undergo a sleep study – called a polysomnography. This involves staying overnight in hospital (with a parent), so that specialists can watch your child’s breathing, heart rate, oxygen level, and brain, eye and muscle activity while she’s sleeping. These tests aren’t usually painful or uncomfortable for children.

Obstructive sleep apnoea treatment

Treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea depends on what the cause is. If enlarged adenoids or tonsils are the cause, doctors usually recommend surgery to remove them.

If your doctor thinks hay fever or allergy is the cause, the doctor might suggest a trial of nasal steroids or medication for a few weeks.

If obesity is part of the cause, your doctor will recommend a weight and exercise program.

Some children who have special medical conditions or severe cases of obstructive sleep apnoea might need to use a Continuous Positive Airways Pressure (CPAP) machine. Your child will see a sleep specialist or respiratory physician to arrange this.

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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