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Obstructive Sleep Apnea in Babies: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Sleep apnea in babies can become a concern for some parents. First, it’s important to know that this problem is about more than snoring, and it often begins right after birth. However, the breathing disorder we’re about to discuss in today’s article happens mainly during periods of rest.

Obstructive sleep apnea in babies occurs when their breathing stops for a moment. This interruption may be partial, with some remaining air passage, or total, without oxygen exchange while it lasts.

That’s where the seriousness of this condition comes from. Thus, it requires immediate attention and treatment. This is because many bodily functions, including those of the brain, disrupt when there’s no entry and exit of those gases required for the metabolism to function.

Keep reading to find out more about this condition and its possible treatments.

Causes of Obstructive Sleep Apnea in Babies

The origin of this problem in young children lies in the anatomy of their upper airway. A child’s airway is smaller than an adult’s and its limited diameter can collapse due to the flexibility of the trachea.

Some babies have a narrower upper airway than others either due to their own anatomy or due to recurring infections. Also, a small trachea with limited cartilage isn’t the same as that with an enlarged tonsil.

One of the most common causes of this condition is tonsil hypertrophy. This lymphoid defense tissue might increase its size and prevent the proper transit of air into the body, especially when lying down.

The shape of the lower jaw is also a risk factor. The shape of the air access door on children with smaller facial bones is different and it’s harder for it to move within.

Overweight babies have a double complicating factor. On the one hand, the fat that accumulates in the neck puts pressure on the windpipe. On the other one, their tongue increases in size and falls backward when they’re asleep.

Furthermore, children with cerebral palsy are a special case. This is because one of the characteristics of this pathology is a looser muscle tone that facilitates the obstruction of the airway in them.

Noticeable symptoms of the disorder

The signs and symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea in babies surround the respiratory system. Snoring is the main one. These infants snore excessively and often as loud as an adult.

In turn, snoring is usually accompanied by a stoppage of breathing and rhythm. Apnea happens when there’s no inspiration or expiration and pulmonary mechanics suspend momentarily.

Parents or caregivers often detect this phenomenon but it goes unnoticed at times. This doesn’t mean you must constantly check if your little ones are breathing when they’re asleep. It does mean you should pay attention from time to time, particularly to their sounds.

Babies with obstructive sleep apnea breathe through the mouth rather than through their nose, as this mechanism facilitates the entry of a greater volume of air. Also, it dries out the oral and nasal mucosa, increasing thirst and nighttime awakenings.

Long-term effects of obstructive sleep apnea in babies

What are the consequences of poor rest and poor oxygen intake during sleep?

Well, babies with this disorder tend to be hyperactive during the day, which establishes a higher caloric expenditure. In turn, it can delay proper weight progression when not adequately supplemented.

A baby with obstructive sleep apnea is also at risk of early alterations in their incipient teeth. According to an article in Revista de la Asociacion Mexicana, bruxism or grinding of teeth is more common among children with sleep problems.

There are also longer-term consequences that carry all the way through adolescence and adulthood for those who suffered from apnea as infants. They’re more likely to develop high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. However, this is most prevalent in obese children.

Possible treatments

The options for treating obstructive sleep apnea in babies are many and varied, and not all treating medical teams agree on which ones to use at all times. Among the strategies available there are:

  • Nasal corticosteroids, or medications for topical use for congestion in the nasal mucosa. They work in cases of rhinitis, and should always be prescribed by a doctor.
  • Adenoid surgery or an adenoidectomy is the route of choice for children in whom tonsillar hypertrophy is detected.
  • Hygienic and dietary measures can improve mild cases, so adjustments in their habits are highly recommended. For example, adjust the position when the child is lying down, their sleeping schedule, the distribution of their meals, and their distance from the bedtime.
  • CPAP equipment is reserved for severe cases that don’t improve with any previous alternative. It consists of an injection of positive air pressure through the respiratory route to force oxygen to reach the lungs in the appropriate amount. This is usually the last resource.

Is obstructive sleep apnea in babies a reason for alarm?

Don’t panic if your baby receives this diagnosis, but do begin treatment promptly. The infant development period is important because it sets the basis for the rest of their life.

Correct any disorders quickly and you’ll avoid serious problems in the future. Your pediatrician should be able to advise on the best treatment alternatives and what you can do daily to improve the situation.

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