Apnea (Child)

Many people have short pauses in their breathing, and this is normal. If the pauses occur often for 20 seconds or longer, the condition is called apnea. Apnea can affect children while they sleep. This is known as sleep apnea. Sleep apnea can be caused by any of the following:

  • Obesity

  • Enlarged tonsils or adenoids

  • Medicines

  • Anatomic abnormalities

  • Metabolic or genetic disorders

  • Family history of sleep apnea

There are many symptoms of sleep apnea. Common symptoms your child with apnea may have include:

  • Snoring

  • Morning headaches

  • Excessive sleepiness

  • Restless sleep

  • Night sweats

  • Nasal obstruction

  • Grouchiness (irritability)

  • Behavioral problems

Treatment varies depending on the cause. Surgery can remove swollen tonsils or adenoids. Some children need to lose weight, use medicines, or even breathe with a special mask at night. This is called a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure). For this treatment, oxygenated air is circulated through a mask to the nose or mouth. This helps keep the breathing passages open.

Home care


If the healthcare provider prescribed any medicines, follow the provider's instructions for giving them to your child.

General care

  • Ensure that your home is free of tobacco smoke and indoor air pollutants and allergens. These irritants may make breathing more difficult for your child.

  • Allow your child to rest as needed during the day.

  • Give your child healthy foods and drinks. If your child needs to lose weight, ask to meet with a nutritionist.

  • Encourage your child to exercise.

  • Talk to your child's healthcare provider if you are concerned they may be having apnea. The provider will take a full health history and do a physical exam. Your child may need more formal testing with a sleep study. For this, they'll have to sleep in the hospital. Their breathing can be watched during the sleep cycle.

  • If a nighttime mask (CPAP) is needed, help your child get used to it. It may take time to adjust to the mask.

  • Tell school officials, teachers, and daycare providers about your child’s health. Work with them to ensure that your child is successful and happy during the day.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your child's healthcare provider, or as advised. Your child may be referred to an ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT or otolaryngologist) for evaluation.

Call 911

Call 911 if any of these occur:

  • Trouble breathing

  • Confusion or dizziness

  • Very drowsy or trouble waking up

  • Fainting or loss of consciousness

  • Fast heart rate

  • Unable to talk

  • Seizure

  • Stiff neck

When to get medical care

Call your child's healthcare provider right away if any of the following occur:

  • New or worsening symptoms, such as trouble waking your child, daytime tiredness, or morning headache

  • Ongoing distraction or behavioral problems at school

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