Home » Library » What You Should Know about Sleep Apnea in Children

What You Should Know about Sleep Apnea in Children

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) in children is an increasingly common medical problem, and is associated with many complications, including metabolic, cardiovascular, and neurocognitive changes.

The prevalence of obstructive sleep apnea in children has not been precisely determined since the diagnostic criteria have not been firmly established, but may be increasing in association with the rise in childhood obesity.

Estimates of the prevalence of OSA in children range from one to four percent. Strict numerical criteria for the diagnosis are unsatisfactory, however, and the International Classification of Sleep Disorders – Second Edition (ICSD-2) proposes using a combination of signs and symptoms: the AHI and supporting polysomnogram abnormalities such as respiratory effort related arousals, oxygen desaturation, increased end tidal carbon dioxide, or swings in esophageal pressure.

Despite these nosological challenges, studies of OSA in children reveal special features of the disease. For example, snoring is a very common sign, particularly in children ages 2-8. Nasal obstruction, tonsillar hypertrophy, obesity, craniofacial abnormalities, bedwetting, daytime mouth breathing, daytime somnolence or hyperactivity are all common features. The dental exam may reveal malocclusion, retrognathia, macroglossia, or a long or high arched palate.

A laboratory-based polysomnogram (PSG) is the gold standard diagnostic test and is generally recommended, but often skipped, before consideration of tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy. The PSG rules for scoring apneas and hypopneas in children are unique, so the scoring technologist must be made aware that the patient is a child.

Based on American Academy of Sleep Medicine task force guidelines, the number of apneas and hypopneas per hour (apnea hypopnea index, or AHI) considered abnormal for adults is greater than five. However, studies in children have concluded that one or more apnea per hour is abnormal. Esophageal pressure monitoring may be added to detect swings in intrathoracic pressure, thus improving the sensitivity of the test for detecting respiratory efforts.

Health risks associated with OSA in children are similar to that in adults:

  • cognitive behavioral effects
  • hypertension
  • arrhythmias
  • left ventricular dysfunction
  • pulmonary hypertension
  • metabolic derangements (e.g., insulin resistance, reduced growth factor and insulin-like growth factor)

Several inflammatory markers are increased as well in children with OSA.

Article continues below...
Therapists live, online right now, from BetterHelp:

Treatment of Obstructive Sleep Apnea in Children

Tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy are generally considered the first-line treatment if clinically appropriate. Other modalities –- often used in combination — successfully alleviate residual OSA in children:

  • continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP)
  • nasal corticosteroid sprays
  • weight loss programs
  • orthodontic intervention

At a Glance: Two Recently Published Studies

Cardiovascular changes in children with sleep-disordered breathing (SDB)

Conducted in Victoria, Australia, this study tested the hypothesis that blood pressure and heart rate are increased during obstructive events in children equivalent to levels reported in adults. The study employed beat-by-beat BP and HR analyzed over the course of obstructive events during NREM and REM sleep. Results showed that BP and HR did increase significantly from late to post event in both sleep states. The study concluded that:

  • Children with SDB experience significant changes in HR and BP during obstructive events with magnitudes that are similar to levels reported in adults.
  • These changes are more pronounced during NREM sleep and with arousal.
  • These acute cardiovascular changes may have important implications for poor cardiovascular outcome, possibly contributing to development of hypertension.

Adenotonsillectomy (AT) impact on blood pressure (BP) in children with OSA

This study, conducted by the Department of Pediatrics, Kwong Wah Hospital, Hong Kong assessed the impact of AT surgery on 24-hour ambulatory BP in children with OSA. Methodology consisted of a retrospective review of records of 44 OSA children who had undergone AT and a repeated sleep polysomnography after AT. Analysis showed that mean AHI dropped after AT. Twenty participants (45 percent) were cured of OSA. After AT surgery, six out of eight (75 percent) previously hypertensive children became normotensive. For the pre-AT hypertensive group, both systolic and diastolic BP decreased significantly during sleep after AT. However, eight children who were normotensive before AT became hypertensive after AT (but were more likely to have post-AT AHI >1). The study concluded that:

  • 45 percent were cured of OSA and a significant decrease in BP was achieved after AT.
  • Hypertension may persist or occur in previously normotensive children with OSA after AT.
  • Cure of OSA should not be assumed after AT and follow-up PSG should be performed together with 24-hour BP monitoring.


O’Driscoll, D.M. et al., Acute Cardiovascular Changes with Obstructive Events in Children with Sleep Disordered Breathing. SLEEP, 2009;32(10):1265-1271.

Ng, D. K. et al. (2010). Ambulatory blood pressure before and after adenotonsillectomy in children with obstructive sleep apnea. Sleep Medicine 11(7): 721–725.

Hoban, T.F. and Chervin, R.D. (2007). Sleep-related breathing disorders of childhood: description and clinical picture, diagnosis, and treatment approaches. Sleep Med Clin 2:445-462.

Katz, E.S. and D’Ambrosio, C.M. (2010). Pediatric obstructive sleep apnea syndrome. Clin Chest Med 31:221-234.

Bixler, E.O., et al. (2009). Sleep disordered breathing in children in a general population sample: prevalence and risk factors. Sleep 32(6):731-736.

Sleeping child photo available from Shutterstock

What You Should Know about Sleep Apnea in Children

Melissa S. Lim, MD, FAASM

Melissa S. Lim, MD, is the Medical Director and founder of Redwood Pulmonary Medical Associates. Dr. Lim is board certified in internal medicine, pulmonary diseases, and sleep medicine. She also created MobileSleepDoc, an app that tracks sleeping patterns to identify potential sleep disorders.

APA Reference
Lim, M. (2018). What You Should Know about Sleep Apnea in Children. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.