Sleeping Soundly or Snoring? Kids and Sleep Apnea

As much as 4 percent of U.S. children suffer from obstructive sleep apnea.

ByABC News via logo

Sept. 6, 2007 — -- As much as 4 percent of all U.S. children suffer from a sleeping disorder called obstructive sleep apnea.

For 6-year-old Timmy Vail, the sweet sound of sleep was always saturated with snoring, and it worried his mother.

"I noticed his really heavy breathing and snoring," said Kris Vail, Timmy's mother. "I noticed every now and then, when I'd wake up in the middle of the night. I'd hear him just [gasp] like short breaths, and it made me a little nervous."

In addition to Timmy's snoring, doctors found that the youngster had enlarged tonsils, which, along with the snoring, was a sign of obstructive sleep apnea.

The disorder can have huge ramifications for school-age children.

Studies suggest obstructive sleep apnea can lead to lower IQ scores and learning impairment. It also has been linked to cardiac problems and diabetes later in life.

The disorder's nighttime symptoms include snoring, labored breathing and gasping during sleep, while daytime signs can include excessive sleepiness, an inability to concentrate and hyperactivity.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, other symptoms include:

"Children who have obstructive sleep apnea — what happens to them is that when they go to sleep, they actually tend to either partially close, or completely close their airway off," said Dr. Sumit Bhargava, attending physician in pediatric respiratory medicine and the co-director of the Yale-New Haven Pediatric Sleep Center in Connecticut.

An early diagnosis is key to dealing with obstructive sleep apnea, and the best way to determine if a person has the disorder is to participate in an overnight sleep study.

That's exactly what Timmy did at the Yale-New Haven Pediatric Sleep Center. After his father read him a bedtime story, Timmy headed to dreamland with dozens of electrodes hooked up to him, which took more than an hour to place all over his body.

Computers recorded every move Timmy made.

"These leads actually measure two basic things — they measure your brain activity so that we can actually figure out whether you're awake or asleep," Bhargava said. "We also look at how they breathe, how fast they breathe, whether they stop breathing, whether their oxygen level goes down, whether their limbs move excessively at night."

And while it may seem intimidating, it's a painless and simple overnight procedure, which could prevent a lifetime of problems for Timmy.

While Timmy was monitored, Bhargava discovered in the boy's deepest sleep stage that he had some obstruction to his air flow.

But Bhargava's definitive diagnosis included some good news.

"He said he did have a mild sleep apnea," said Vail. "It was so mild that we don't need to have his tonsils out right now. However, in about six months, he wants to recheck him with another sleep study."

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