Treating Sleep Apnea in Kids Improves Behavior, Quality of Life

Using a Forced Air Mask at Night Makes a Big Difference, Study Shows

From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 10, 2012 -- Kids with obstructive sleep apnea are often tired by day, have trouble paying attention, and have other behavioral problems all because they are not getting enough quality sleep at night. A new study may help turn that around -- without surgery.

Sleep apnea is marked by pauses in breathing while asleep. This is often a result of an obstruction in the airway, such as oversized tonsils or adenoids. These pauses can occur throughout the night and disrupt sleep. Positive airway pressure (PAP) machines help keep the airways open during sleep. These machines deliver pressurized air through a mask to hold the airways in the throat open.

New research shows that this treatment can improve the quality of life and behavior issues for children with sleep apnea. The findings appear in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

“The main message is that treatment, although it may be difficult to tolerate, can result in a significant improvement in childhood behavior symptoms and quality of life,” says researcher Carole L. Marcus. She is a professor of pediatrics at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

3 Hours a Night Can Make a Big Difference

One of the issues with this treatment is that children may not want to wear the bulky mask while they sleep, but the study shows that even three hours a night is enough to make a big difference. “This was a surprise to me and made me feel better. Any use is better than no use,” Marcus says.

Surgery to remove tonsils and adenoids is typically the first step to treating obstructive sleep apnea in kids. But not all children are candidates for surgery, and for some, it may not cure the sleep apnea. Children who are obese, for example, may still have sleep apnea even after they have their tonsils and adenoids removed. Obesity is a risk factor for sleep apnea in adults and children.

Marcus says parents should have their child evaluated in a pediatric sleep center if there are concerns. If the apnea does not improve after surgery, PAP may be an option.