When you think of sleep apnea, you probably think of a dad snoring loudly in a recliner with the TV on in the background. You might even think of the various complications associated with the sleep disorder –– like fatigue, heart problems and high blood pressure. 

What might not cross your mind is childhood sleep apnea. While it’s uncommon, it’s estimated that around 10% of school-aged children suffer from obstructive sleep apnea. Some children grow out of it, while others do not. Research is now showing sleep apnea can have serious impacts on their health at an early age. 

A June 2021 study from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) found that children who live with obstructive sleep apnea are three times more likely to develop high blood pressure in adolescence. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for future heart disease. Here’s what you need to know about high blood pressure and childhood sleep apnea.

What Is Sleep Apnea?  

Obstructive sleep apnea affects millions of people worldwide. It’s marked by repeated episodes of breathing interruptions and consistent daytime fatigue. While it’s most prevalent in males and older adults, sleep apnea does happen in children.

Long term complications associated with obstructive sleep apnea

  • High blood pressure 
  • Heart attacks and heart issues
  • Stroke
  • Type 2 diabetes 
  • Daytime fatigue

About half of children with sleep apnea outgrow it when they reach adolescence. The other half of them live with sleep apnea as a chronic sleep disorder. The study found that if the child’s sleep apnea approves as they get older, they don’t have the increased risk of high blood pressure. 

What can I do for my children? 

In a recent statement, lead study author Julio Fernandez-Mendoza, Ph.D., said, “Because most cases of sleep apnea go undiagnosed in adults and children alike, the problem needs more attention. Sleep apnea and its risk factors should be screened for, monitored, and targeted early in life to prevent future cardiovascular disease.”

Doctors can’t really pinpoint what helps a child grow out of sleep apnea while it persists for others. However, it’s been suggested that early intervention and treatment is the best way to ensure cardiovascular health. 

Treatment options for childhood sleep apnea: 

  • Don’t assume it’s normal –– The worst thing you can do is assume snoring or being overweight is normal for your child. If your child sounds like they are gasping for air through the night, you should see a doctor immediately. 
  • Surgical removal of tonsils and adenoids –– This won’t be necessary for every child. You’ll want to consult our doctor to find out. 
  • Use of continuous airway pressure (CPAP) machine –– CPAP machines are the standard in sleep apnea treatment. 
  • Establish healthy eating and exercise habits –– Sleep apnea is linked to being overweight –– in both adults and children. Helping your child develop both healthy eating and exercise habits could help their symptoms improve. 

How to Help Your Child Get Used to Wearing Their CPAP Machine

Getting your child ready for bed is challenging in its own right. Admittedly, it might be even harder to help your child adapt to wearing it while sleeping. Some adults even have trouble consistently wearing it! The best thing you can do for your child is practice wearing the CPAP mask when they are awake. Try having your child wear their mask during reading time or when they start getting ready for bed. 

It’s not just enough to have them wear the mask; you should also turn the machine on so they get used to the noise. The most important thing is integrating the CPAP machine into your child’s nightly routine, so it becomes second nature. 

Too Long, Didn’t Read?

The truth is, there isn’t enough research for us to really understand how sleep apnea impacts heart health in children. We know they’re connected, but we need more. Fernandez-Mendoza is currently conducting a follow-up study of the original participants to help us better understand the relationship between childhood sleep apnea and heart health as they age. That said, there are still things you can do to help your child with sleep apnea live a healthy life.