Sleep apnea isn't just for adults

By Erin Dym on May 28, 2012
If your child snores as loudly as your grandfather, he could have sleep apnea, a potentially dangerous condition in which breathing is obstructed during sleep.

That was the first clue for Megan Harvey (name changed) who was worried her baby wasn’t sleeping properly. “He kept waking up and crying so many times a night that I decided to watch him sleep to see what was going on.” When she noticed that he stopped breathing for several seconds, many times, she took him to the pediatrician, who diagnosed him with sleep apnea. The solution? Surgery to remove his adenoids, which were obstructing his breathing.

“In young infants, it’s quite rare, but sleep apnea in older infants – more than 18 months – is actually quite common,” says Dr. Nina Shapiro, Director of Pediatric Ear, Nose, and Throat at the Mattel Children’s Hospital of UCLA and the author of Take A Deep Breath: Clear the Air for the Health of Your Child.

“At least 10 to 15 percent of toddlers have some degree of blocked breathing during sleep, often leading to sleep apnea.”

How can you tell if your child has it? “If you hear your child snore, followed by silence, followed by a big gasp for air, that is most likely a sign of sleep apnea,” says Dr. Shapiro. “Any irregular breathing pattern where it is not the steady in and out rhythm may also be a sign. In general, breathing at night, at all ages, should be silent.”

Untreated sleep apnea can result in minor consequences such as daytime fatigue, irritability or lack of focus (seen more commonly in school-aged children). It can also be associated with increased frequency of colds, respiratory illnesses, sinus infections and stuffy or runny noses. Severe consequences include breathing difficulties during the day due to severely blocked air passages, asthma, and even heart and lung problems.

If you think your child may have sleep apnea, experts suggest that you check on her at different times of night to listen to her breathing pattern and see if she is snoring. It is also a good idea to video or audio record your child and bring it (and your child) to your doctor’s office.

Possible treatments:
  • If the snoring is caused by nasal stuffiness, try nasal saline drops at bedtime and a room humidifier.
  • A visit with an allergist may be needed to see if the blockage is being caused by an environmental trigger.
  • For kids ages two to six, enlarged tonsils and adenoids may be the culprit. If your doctor suspects this, he may refer your child to an ear, nose and throat specialist, who may recommend surgery as the best option.

Now that Megan knows her son can breathe properly, she can breathe easy as well. “I’m just glad I paid attention to the signs and didn’t assume that everything was OK. Sometimes, it’s not.”

Do you need professional help?

If you have a newborn who won’t sleep and you’re at your wit’s end, you might want to call a certified doula for guidance. Robyn Berman, a DONA International- certified birth and post-partum doula in Halifax, says the two main issues first-time mothers have are breastfeeding concerns and their infant’s sleep habits. Often, babies fall asleep at their mother’s breast after feeding, then wake up as soon as they are put down in their crib or bassinet.

Robyn, who is also a board member of the Nova Scotia Doula Association, advises parents that until their baby is around 16 weeks old, it’s OK to have a loose sleep routine. “Up until then, how ever your baby can get sleep is fine – whether that’s on the mother’s chest while sitting on the couch or in the stroller. After 16 weeks, you can start putting a more structured sleep routine in place.”

When Robyn visits a client at her house, she makes sure the environment is set up so there are several places where Mom can sit comfortably with her sleeping baby, such as on the couch or in an armchair, not just in a glider in the baby’s bedroom. “Your new baby’s habitat is you – that’s where they’ll most likely get the most sleep.” To find a certified doula in your area, visit

Originally published in ParentsCanada, May/June 2012

By Erin Dym| May 28, 2012

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