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Sleep Apnoea fact sheet

Sleep Apnoea

Children with sleep apnoea have difficulties breathing while they are asleep. The condition is most commonly caused when the upper airway muscles relax during sleep and the airway becomes either partially or fully blocked by the enlarged tonsils and adenoids. Other causes may include obesity, long-term allergies, children with muscle weakness or low muscle tone caused by medical conditions such as Down Syndrome or Pierre Robin Syndrome and other airway structural or facial abnormalities.

Approximately two to three in every 100 children will experience some form of obstructive sleep apnoea.

Signs and symptoms

Children with sleep apnoea will often:

  • snore loudly, pause while breathing and have difficulty breathing while sleeping
  • choke, gasp, snort, be restless and may sweat while sleeping
  • breathe through their mouth instead of their nose at night
  • have headaches on waking, have a blocked nose, poor appetite and difficulties swallowing
  • excessive daytime sleepiness, behavioural issues and trouble concentrating at school.
  • have trouble falling asleep and frequent waking up during the night

When should I take my child to the doctor?

All children who snore should be assessed by their usual doctor. Take your child to the doctor if they snore loudly, pause while breathing or have difficulty in breathing during sleep.

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor may recommend your child undertake a sleep study (polysomnography) to confirm if they have sleep apnoea. This is a painless study and no needles are involved. Sleep measuring equipment is attached to the child to measure their breathing, oxygen levels, heart rate (pulse), brain, eye and muscle activity. The measurements are taken while the child and parent stay in the sleep unit overnight. All children who have symptoms do not need a sleep study. Your doctor will advise.

What is the treatment?

  • Removal of the tonsils and adenoids cures sleep apnoea in 80-90 percent of children who do not have other contributing medical problems to the sleep apnoea.
  • Your doctor may refer you to others service and health professionals to help with other areas of concern for your child such as weight management.
  • Children with long term (chronic) nasal allergies may be treated with combination of medical treatments.
  • A small number of children with severe sleep apnoea or special conditions may need a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airways Pressure) machine to help them breathe while sleeping.

Some children may need to return to the sleep clinic if they have severe sleep apnoea or do not improve six to eight weeks after surgery. Parents should also advise their doctor if their child continues to snore or has difficulty breathing after surgery.

Contact us

Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital
501 Stanley Street, South Brisbane
t: 07 3068 1111 (general enquiries)

In an emergency, always call 000.

If it’s not an emergency but you have any concerns, contact 13 Health (13 43 2584). Qualified staff will give you advice on who to talk to and how quickly you should do it. You can phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Useful websites

American Sleep Apnea Association | http://sleepapnea.org/resources/links.html

Resource No: FS173. Developed by Respiratory and Sleep Unit. Updated: November 2016. All information contained in this sheet has been supplied by qualified professionals as a guideline for care only. Seek medical advice, as appropriate, for concerns regarding your child’s health.

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