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Causes, Symptoms and Treatment of Sleep Apnea In Toddlers

Sleep apnea in toddlers is a very common form of sleep disorder. This disorder is characterized by repetitive interruption of breathing during sleep. There are three types of sleep apnea in children – central sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea which is the most common type and mixed apnea which is a combination of the two. This sleep problem can be potentially fatal. Thus, it is very important for parents to understand the causes, symptoms and treatment of sleep apnea in toddlers.


Sleep apnea in toddlers can be caused by a number of things. Adenoids or enlarged tonsils are the most common cause of sleep apnea in toddlers. A toddler’s tonsils are naturally a bit larger than an adult which can momentarily obstruct air from getting into his lungs. Adenoids and tonsils may also become engorged from allergies.

Other causes of sleep apnea in toddlers are obesity, Down syndrome, certain facial features such as cleft palate and a receding chin and failure of the brain to send signals to the muscles to breathe.

Signs and Symptoms

The following are indications of sleep apnea in toddlers:

  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Snoring
  • Pauses in breathing during sleep (lasts at least 10 seconds)
  • Huffing noises while sleeping
  • Restless sleep
  • Coughs at night
  • Mouth breathing
  • Poor weight gain
  • Weight loss
  • Constant bed-wetting
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Cognitive and behavioural problems such as aggressiveness, hyperactivity and absent-mindedness


Tonsils and Adenoids Removal

In most cases, sleep apnea in toddlers can be treated through adenoidectomy and tonsillectomy (surgeries for removing the adenoids and tonsils). Your toddler’s pediatrician will recommend an otolaryngologist to perform the surgery as well as discuss the risks and benefits with you. This surgery requires general anesthesia, can be done on an outpatient basis (depending on your toddler’s health) and has no long-term and negative side effects.


CPAP or Continuous Positive Airway Pressure is a special machine that may be used by your toddler at night. This machine keeps the airway free by blowing air into the nose through a mask during sleep. Letting your toddler wear the mask for at least 3 hours a night can make a big difference.

Bi-Level Breathing Machine

Bi-level Positive Airway Pressure (BiPAP) machine is similar to a CPAP machine but is mainly used for more severe cases. It has 2 different pressures – one for inhaling and another for exhaling which allows your toddler to get more air in and out of his lungs.

Weight Management

If your toddler’s sleep apnea is due to obesity, your child will have to undergo a weight management or weight loss program. Obese children are more vulnerable to having jammed airways. Your doctor may prescribe a special diet and exercises to help cure the problem before it further aggravates.

If you think your toddler may be suffering from sleep apnea, consult your pediatrician immediately. Your toddler might need to undergo a sleep study for diagnosis.

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