Don’t let your child lose sleep over sleep apnea

If your child is restless or snores during the night, and then is also extra tired during the day, it might be time for an overnight sleep study.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea in Children

These symptoms point to sleep apnea, which occurs when a person’s breathing pauses off and on all night, waking him or her up dozens or even hundreds of times every night — and leaving the person exhausted the next morning without knowing why. And without treatment, the symptoms will only get worse.

“They might have trouble getting up in the morning or want to take naps as elementary school kids,” says Dr. Karen Hentschel-Franks, who specializes in pediatric sleep medicine at University Health. “The child might start falling asleep at school, or a teacher might say he can’t concentrate and be labeled an inattentive child.”

About 2-5% of children have sleep apnea, although many kids go undiagnosed. In children aged 2 to 8 — the years when tonsils are growing the most — enlarged tonsils are a common cause of sleep apnea. Surgery to remove the tonsils usually resolves the problem.

Other health conditions, such as sickle cell anemia and diabetes, can also cause sleep apnea. Dr. Franks’ biggest concern, however, is obesity, which is a very strong risk factor for sleep apnea.

Sleep Studies for Children

To know for sure whether your child has sleep apnea, University Health offers sleep studies, which are conducted overnight at a nearby hotel. The test involves several types of monitors to measure brain activity, air flow and oxygen levels in the blood.

Parents will also be in the room, but in a different bed so as to not disturb the child’s sleep.

How to Treat Sleep Apnea

With the information from the study, Dr. Franks can tell parents how many hours the child slept, whether the child achieved all stages of sleep, how many apneas occurred, and whether there were any abnormal leg movements, among other details. She then will make recommendations about the next step, whether that be removing tonsils, removing the adenoids (tissues behind the nasal passages), losing weight or other treatment options.

If other treatments aren’t working, Dr. Franks may recommend a CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure machine to keep the child’s airways open during sleep.

That’s what Brenda Leal was able to do for her sons. Because her boys struggled to breathe night after night, she decided to take them for sleep studies at University Health. With Dr. Franks’ report, Leal was able to get CPAP machines for both boys.

“They use the machines every day,” Leal said. “If they don't use the machines, they kick around all night. But when they use the machines, they sleep peacefully.”

Schedule a Sleep Study at University Health

The most important thing, Dr. Franks says, is to act early if you think your child is having a problem sleeping well at night.

“Some parents think snoring is cute or that it will go away,” Dr. Franks said, “but I recommend speaking to the child’s pediatrician to get a referral to the Sleep Lab.”

If you would like to schedule an appointment with the University Health Sleep Lab, call 210-358-8587.

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