Central Sleep Apnea in Children

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on November 14, 2022
3 min read

Sleep apnea is when something interrupts your breathing for several seconds at a time as you sleep.

The most common type, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), is a problem with the mechanics of breathing. Something -- like extra body weight or loose skin -- causes the airway between your nose and your lungs to close and block airflow for a few moments when you sleep.

In central sleep apnea (CSA), there is no mechanical problem. Your brain simply doesn’t signal your muscles properly, so you stop breathing briefly or breathe so lightly that you don’t get enough oxygen.

Doctors don’t know exactly how many kids have CSA. But between 1% and 5% of all kids have some type of sleep apnea.

In most cases, it isn’t clear why a child gets CSA. Still, there are a number of things that have ties to CSA. These include:


You might notice pauses or unusual patterns in your child’s breathing as they sleep. Other signs and symptoms might include:

  • Sudden and frequent wakeups with breathlessness
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Headaches in the morning
  • Trouble focusing on a task


Your doctor will want to know about any symptoms you or your child notices. If they think your child might have CSA, they'll suggest an overnight sleep study.

On the night of the test, medical personnel will put sensors on your child’s head and body to monitor breathing, brain waves, and heart rate during different stages of sleep. A sleep specialist will then help interpret the results of the test to see if your child has CSA.

It’s a good idea to seek out a sleep lab that has experience with children. Some facilities have special accreditation for kids. Your doctor can help you find one.

Doctors might suggest more diagnostic tests to help find the cause of your child’s CSA. This can include imaging tests of the head and heart.

There are a few ways that doctors treat central sleep apnea.

Treat the underlying cause. If the doctor can find something that's leading to central sleep apnea, treating that condition can also treat the CSA.

Wait and watch. In some cases, your child may simply grow out of CSA as their brain forms. They may need follow-up studies to see if things improve.

Extra oxygen. A machine delivers it through a mask or tube to help raise blood oxygen levels.

Breathing assistance. A BiPAP or CPAP machine delivers light air pressure through your child’s nose or mouth to help them breathe.

Medication. If your child can't tolerate using a BiPAP or CPAP machine, your doctor may recommend drugs or other treatments that can help their breathing patterns become more normal. These can include:

Theophylline (Theochron) is another option, but it's rarely used.

Surgery. When a condition like Chiari malformation -- where the skull is small or misshapen and pushes on an area of the brain -- is the cause of your child's central sleep apnea, your doctor might suggest surgery to correct the malformation.

Talk with your pediatrician about which treatment might be the best for your child.