The Sleep Disorder Parents May Miss

That distracted, cranky child could be suffering from sleep apnea.

child sleepingSleep problems in adults and babies often grab the spotlight, but children and teenagers struggle with sleep issues as well. Many conditions have obvious symptoms that lead parents to seek medical help, such as sleep terrors (episodes of screaming and flailing while asleep), narcolepsy (excessive daytime sleepiness and dozing) and enuresis (bed wetting). “All of these are presented at The Center for Sleep Disorders at Clara Maass,” says Frank Mazzarella, MD, Chief Medical Officer of Clara Maass Medical Center. However, obstructive sleep apnea is a disorder that many parents and doctors don’t expect—and therefore don’t recognize—in children.

The condition, in which throat muscles relax too much and interfere with breathing during sleep, is estimated to affect up to 5 percent of children, Dr. Mazzarella says. Sleep apnea can be caused by excess weight, enlarged tonsils or adenoids and even a dental overbite. Symptoms include snoring, heavy breathing or gasping during sleep and very restless sleep.

Missed diagnoses

“Children might snore a little bit, but it’s not always obvious to parents that there’s a problem,” says Dr. Mazzarella. “And children won’t come and tell you. They won’t necessarily be groggy in the morning, as an adult with the sleep disorder would be. But they might be very irritable and inattentive, even throughout the school day.” Many cases of children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are, in reality, cases of children who aren’t getting enough sleep, says Dr. Mazzarella. “You have a child who is disruptive and not paying attention. They might even fall asleep in class,” he says. “But rather than getting punished, they should be sent to our Sleep Center for assessment.”

In the case of pediatric sleep apnea, the plan of care is often quite straightforward. Removing the tonsils or adenoids is effective, as is addressing an overbite or other structural problem. If excess weight is the cause, a healthcare provider can share with families a healthy and realistic diet and can recommend exercise strategies.

'A life-changer’

Sleep apnea in children is potentially serious. “If medical professionals don’t detect and fix this problem, children are at risk of developing hypertension or even heart failure,” says Dr. Mazzarella. “This is a new field, and experts are doing more and more to uncover these problems so that they can be treated early.” No matter what the issue, correcting sleep problems in children “can be a life-changer for them,” says Dr. Mazzarella, who says he has seen some go from being C-minus students to A-plus students after treatment.

“Once these children are able to get a good night’s sleep, their level of attention and concentration go up. These young people don’t have learning problems,” he says. “They’re just tired.”

Learn more about The Center for Sleep Disorders at Clara Maass Medical Center, or call 888.724.7123