The major symptoms for children with sleep apnea are loud frequent snoring—sometimes with gasping or breathing pauses—sweating and restless sleep.

Risk factors

A major risk factor for sleep apnea in children is large tonsils and adenoids. In fact, the number one reason for taking out tonsils and adenoids in children—some 500,00 per year—is now sleep apnea. Other contributors include environmental allergies, asthma, exposure to secondary smoke and being overweight or obese. And since family history also seems important, many children with sleep apnea have parents with the same problem.

"Sleep apnea in children is also associated with behavior problems like hyperactivity, changes in mood, attention and cognitive function, and poor school performance."

Sleep apnea in children is best diagnosed with an overnight sleep study performed in a sleep lab equipped to handle children and interpreted by a sleep specialist trained in pediatric sleep medicine. This is a painless test which involves a number of monitors to assess breathing and sleep; a parent accompanies the child and also spends the night in the lab.

A multi-pronged diagnosis

Increasing scientific evidence suggests that sleep apnea in children is linked to many important short and long-term health consequences such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and increased risk of heart disease. Sleep apnea can cause generalized inflammation throughout the body, including in the blood vessels of the heart and brain, as well as metabolic changes in regulation of blood sugar and hormones and disruption of normal cardiovascular functions. Because of the effect on brain function, sleep apnea in children is also associated with behavior problems like hyperactivity, changes in mood, attention and cognitive function, and poor school performance.

But the good news is that much of the negative impact may be reversible with treatment. Besides surgery, many children benefit from weight loss, medications to reduce inflammation in the airway, nighttime breathing devices like continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) and special dental devices that increase the size of the airway. If you suspect your child might have sleep apnea, talk to your health care provider to see what diagnostic procedures and treatment might be right for your child.