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Sleep Apnea in Children: Detection & Treatment

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Sleep apnea is a condition that affects child's breathing during sleep, causing it to stop and start many times. This happens when the tissue in the back of the throat relaxes during sleep, blocking air from reaching the lungs.

It is important to identify and treat sleep apnea. If left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to a variety of health issues. These include heart, behavior, learning and growth problems.

Signs & symptoms of sleep apnea in children

While symptoms of sleep apnea are different for each child, they may include:

  • Frequent snoring

  • Problems breathing during the night

  • Sleepiness during the day

  • Difficulty paying attention

  • Behavior problems

If you notice any of these symptoms, let your pediatrician know right away.

What is periodic breathing of infancy?

Early on, babies may have a different condition called periodic breathing of infancy. There may be pauses in breathing, followed by rapid "catch up" breathing, and then back to regular breathing. This is generally considered a normal behavior, and babies should outgrow it by age 6 months.

When to Call 911

Call 911 or your local emergency number right away if:
  • Your child's breath stops for more than 20 seconds.

  • Their skin color has changed to pale, bluish or grayish.

  • There is a change in muscle tone, or they have a fever or other symptoms of illness.

How is sleep apnea diagnosed?
After an exam, your pediatrician may recommend an overnight sleep study called a polysomnogram. During this study, medical staff at a specialized sleep lab will watch your child sleep. Several sensors will be attached to your child to monitor breathing, oxygenation and brain waves (electroencephalogram or EEG).

The results of the study will show whether your child has sleep apnea. Other specialists, such as pediatric pulmonologists, otolaryngologists (ear nose and threat doctors), neurologists and pediatricians with specialty training in sleep disorders may help your pediatrician make the diagnosis.

Treatment of sleep apnea in children

The doctor may recommend that your child's tonsils and adenoids be removed. It is the most common and effective way to treat sleep apnea. This surgery is called a tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy. However, it is important to schedule a follow-up visit with the doctor, because the procedure is not always successful.

Tonsils are the round, reddish areas on each side of your child's throat. They help fight infections in the body. You can only see the adenoid with an x-ray or special mirror. It lies in the space between the nose and throat. Large tonsils and adenoid may block a child's airway while they sleep. This causes them to snore and wake up often during the night.

Another effective treatment is the use of nasal continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). A CPAP machine delivers a steady flow of air pressure through a mask. The child wears the mask during sleep to assist with breathing. CPAP may be recommended for children whose sleep apnea does not improve after their tonsils and adenoids are removed, or if surgery is not recommended.

Risk factors for sleep apnea in children
Children at higher risk of having sleep apnea include:

  • Children with larger-than-normal tonsils and adenoid. However, not every child with large tonsils and adenoid has sleep apnea.

  • Children born with other medical conditions, such as trisomy 21 (Down syndrome), cerebral palsy, or craniofacial (skull and face) abnormalities.

  • Children who have overweight or obesity.


A good night's sleep is important to good health. If your child suffers from the symptoms of sleep apnea, talk with your pediatrician. A proper diagnosis and treatment can mean restful nights and restful days for your child and your family.

Last Updated
Sleep Apnea and Your Child (Copyright © 2024 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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