Sleep apnea in babies and infants: symptoms and remedies

August 28, 2020 4 mins read
Sleep apnea in babies and infants: symptoms and remedies

Discovering sleep apnea in babies can be frightening for any parent, especially if your child suddenly stops breathing in their sleep. However, sleep apnea shouldn’t cause any immediate alarm as it is can be treated effectively.

Let’s take a look at how sleep apnea occurs and how it can be remedied, to help your baby (and you) sleep better at night.

What is sleep apnea in babies?

When your baby falls asleep, their muscles relax, including the muscles in their throat. In some babies, the relaxation of their throat muscles can narrow their breathing tubes, which reduces their air intake. This dip in oxygen levels signals the brain to prompt the body to breathe, which is why babies with sleep apnea suddenly gasp or snort in their sleep.

Sleep apnea in babies typically occurs in the second sleep stage of your baby’s sleep cycle (rapid eye movement (REM) sleep). Even healthy babies experience some irregularity in their breathing. This is a natural part of their development and can be isolated events or occur if your child changes position in their sleep. These sleeping pauses rarely last longer than 20 seconds.

Signs of sleep apnea in babies and infants

If you are worried that your child might be suffering from sleep apnea, here are some signs to look out for:

  • Snoring. Snoring is a common sleep disturbance, but it could be a result of sleep apnea in your baby.
  • Gasping or snorting. If your baby suddenly gasps for breath while sleeping, it could indicate that they are having trouble breathing.
  • Frequently waking up. Repeatedly waking up in the night could mean that your child is suffering from a sleep disturbance, which may be caused by sleep apnea.
  • Shallow breathing. If your baby is taking shallow breaths, it may indicate they are having difficulty breathing in their sleep.
  • Sweating. If you find that your baby is a little sweaty in the morning, this could be a sign that they were stressed by not being able to breathe during the night.
  • Behavioural changes. Uncommon irritability and tantrums could be caused by disturbed sleep.

Causes of sleep apnea in babies and infants

The most common cause leading to sleep apnea in babies is enlarged tonsils and adenoids. However, there could be other factors contributing to your baby’s sleep disorder:

  • Family history. Sleep apnea has been known to be a hereditary disorder.
  • Environmental conditions and allergies. Poor air quality can cause sinus issues which can create blocked airways.
  • Having a mental or physical disorder. Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, sickle cell disease or neuromuscular disease can contribute to obstructive airways or lower oxygen levels in the blood.
  • Low or high birth weight. Premature babies have low blood oxygen levels and underdeveloped airways, whereas overweight babies could have enlarged tonsils.
  • Being sick. Catching a cold poses a higher chance of blocked airways and difficulty breathing.

How is sleep apnea in babies treated?

If your baby suffers from mild sleep apnea, your GP will advise you on how to treat the symptoms at home. It could be as simple as observing your baby’s sleeping habits to make the necessary changes.

To assist in the full development of your baby’s respiratory system, it is advised that you place your baby on their back to allow their airways to function efficiently while they sleep.

If sleep apnea is causing prolonged distress in your child, it could indicate that your baby’s tonsils are enlarged. Your GP might refer you to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist who may recommend a simple medical procedure. A tonsillectomy or adenoidectomy, in which your baby’s tonsils or adenoids are removed, are often very effective treatments in combating sleep apnea.

Other remedies for sleep apnea in babies can include regulating their breathing with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy. If your child’s sleep apnea is weight-related, you will need to consult a paediatric dietitian who may recommend a nutritional change. If the cause is environmental, your GP will advise a course of medication to prevent allergies from flaring up.

Can babies outgrow sleep apnea?

Most babies will outgrow sleep apnea by the time their throat and airways are fully developed. (Around 12 months).

Sleep is vital to our wellbeing as adults, but it is even more essential for your child’s overall health. Being able to recognise sleep disturbances and make an early diagnosis can help prevent complications that can affect your baby’s growth, cognitive development and behaviour later on.