Sleep Apnea in Babies: Know It All

Sleep Apnea in Babies: Know It All

Sleep apnea is a common problem that can affect any age group, but it is particularly common in babies and young children. It’s estimated that about 10% of babies have sleep apnea, and up to 30% of children between the ages of 5 and 11 have it. Sleep apnea is defined as a condition in which people stop repeatedly breathing during sleep. The most common symptoms are snoring and restless sleep. In this post, we explain the symptoms of sleep apnea in babies and their parents, what causes it, and how to treat it.

What is Sleep Apnea in Babies?

Sleep apnea in babies is a sleep disorder that is caused by the obstruction of the airways during sleep. It is characterized by pauses in breathing or shallow breaths, which can last for a few seconds to minutes. Sleep apnea can cause restless and disrupted sleep, which can lead to several problems in infants.

Sleep apnea in babies can be caused by various factors such as enlarged tonsils or adenoids, obesity, congenital abnormalities of the airway, and neurological disorders. The symptoms of sleep apnea can vary from mild snoring to severe breathing difficulties that require immediate medical attention. Parents should watch out for signs such as gasping for air during sleep, sudden awakenings with crying or sweating, excessive daytime sleepiness, and difficulty feeding.

If left untreated, sleep apnea in babies can have serious consequences on growth and development.

Signs and Symptoms of Sleep Apnea in Babies

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder in adults, but it can also occur in babies. Parents should be aware of the signs and symptoms of sleep apnea in babies to ensure prompt diagnosis and treatment. Sleep apnea can have serious consequences if left untreated, including developmental delays, behavioral problems, and even death.

  • Mouth breathing.
  • Pauses in breathing.
  • Snoring.
  • Snorting, coughing, or choking.
  • Restless sleep.
  • Bed-wetting.
  • Sleep terrors.
  • Nighttime sweating.


Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder in babies, which affects their breathing pattern during sleep. The condition can be frightening for both parents and the baby, as it disrupts the normal breathing process causing pauses or gasps in breathing. But what causes this sleep apnea in babies? Here are some of the most common reasons that could contribute to this condition.

  • Exposure to toxins
  • Secondhand smoke
  • Infections such as pertussis, meningitis, urinary infection, or a lung or brain infection
  • Exposure to drugs or poisons
  • Anesthesia
  • Respiratory diseases, such as cystic fibrosis or CPAM (a congenital lung disease)
  • Skull and face abnormalities, such as a pushed-back or small chin
  • Metabolic disorders, such as mitochondrial disease or hypoglycemia
  • Muscle weakness from neuromuscular disorders, such as Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.
  • This weakness may cause the airway to collapse while sleeping. More than half of children with Down syndrome develop OSA.
  • Seizures
  • Sickle cell anemia
  • Problems with the heart or blood vessels, resulting in the heart not pumping enough blood to the brain to trigger the signal to breathe
  • Neurological problems
  • Enlarged adenoids and/or tonsils
  • Family history of OSA
  • Imbalance in body chemistry (such as incorrect amounts of calcium or glucose)
  • Sometimes a cause for the apnea isn’t found.
  • Head trauma, bleeding in the brain
  • Gastroesophageal reflux
Sleep Apnea in Babies: Know It All


Sleep apnea is a condition that affects children and adults alike. It is characterized by frequent pauses in breathing during sleep, which can lead to serious health complications if left untreated. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) recommends that the only way to properly diagnose sleep apnea in children is through an overnight sleep study in a sleep lab.

During a sleep study, your child will be hooked up to various monitors that will track their brain waves, heart rate, oxygen levels, and other vital signs while they sleep. This allows doctors to get a comprehensive view of what’s happening while your child sleeps and determine if there are any underlying issues causing the breathing problems.

While it may seem daunting to have your child stay overnight in a strange place with wires attached to them, rest assured that the staff at the sleep lab are trained professionals who will take excellent care of your child.

Taking your child to a sleep lab can be an important step in identifying and addressing sleep disorders, but it’s crucial to ensure that the lab you choose is accredited for children. The way that sleep studies are interpreted in infants and children differs significantly from adults, so it’s important to work with professionals who have specialized training and expertise in pediatric sleep medicine.

One of the most significant differences between adult and pediatric sleep studies is the way that data is collected. In adult studies, patients typically spend one night at the lab hooked up to monitoring equipment that tracks their brain waves, breathing patterns, heart rate, and other vital signs. However, children may require multiple nights of monitoring or even daytime naps to get accurate data on their sleep habits. Pediatric technicians are trained to handle these unique challenges when working with young patients.

Treatment Options

If you suspect that your baby is suffering from sleep apnea, it’s essential to seek medical attention as soon as possible. There are different treatment options available for this condition, depending on its severity and underlying causes.

Pediatric sleep apnea treatments include:

Medication: One type of medication that may help with mild OSA symptoms is topical nasal steroids. These medications work by reducing inflammation in the nasal passages which can help open up congestion and improve breathing during sleep. They are typically used to treat conditions such as allergies or sinusitis but have been found to be effective in managing OSA symptoms as well.

Positive Airway Pressure Therapy: There are treatment options available that can help alleviate some of the symptoms associated with sleep apnea. One such option is the use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) or bilevel positive airway pressure (BPAP) machine.

A CPAP or BPAP machine works by blowing air into your child’s mouth while they sleep, which helps to keep their airway open and regulate their breathing patterns. This can be incredibly beneficial for children who experience more severe instances of sleep apnea, as it can prevent them from experiencing interruptions in breathing throughout the night.

Oral Appliances: For children with sleep apnea, finding the right treatment can be a challenge. Often, the traditional method of using a CPAP machine is not well-tolerated by young patients. However, oral appliances like custom-fitted jaw retainers can be an effective alternative treatment option. These devices work by keeping the airways open during sleep and preventing blockages that lead to interrupted breathing.

Surgery: One of the most effective treatments for this condition involves surgically removing the tonsils and adenoids. The procedure is relatively simple and can significantly improve airflow, leading to better sleep quality and overall health.

Tonsils and adenoids are lymphatic tissues located at the back of the throat. They help filter out harmful bacteria and viruses but can sometimes become enlarged, causing problems with breathing. When these tissues obstruct airflow during sleep, it often results in snoring or even complete breathing cessation, leading to a lack of oxygen supply to vital organs such as the brain and heart. 

Surgical removal of tonsils and adenoids can be done on an outpatient basis under general anesthesia for both children and adults. Recovery time is usually short, with most patients able to return home on the same day as surgery.


Yes, sleep apnea can be dangerous because it affects the brain and the heart. Sleep apnea can cause high blood pressure, stroke, and even heart failure.

 If your baby has been diagnosed with sleep apnea, it will show up on an overnight sleep study. The doctor will measure your baby’s breathing during the night and will see if he or she stops breathing for more than 10 seconds.

The most common cause of sleep apnea in babies is a large tongue, which puts pressure on the soft tissue in the back of the throat.


If you or your baby has any of the following symptoms, it’s definitely worth getting a sleep study done to rule out sleep apnea: snoring, pauses in breathing during sleep, episodes of gasping or choking, restless sleep, and excessive daytime sleepiness. If you have sleep apnea, treatment includes using an appliance like a CPAP machine to help to breathe during sleep, and lifestyle changes like avoiding alcohol, limiting caffeine intake, and exercising regularly.

If you want to know more about different sleep related disorder check out here.

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