Sleep apnea is a common condition in adults, and it can also occur in children. What factors cause sleep apnea to occur in children? There are various contributions that can lead to a narrowing or instability of the upper airway, which can cause the pauses in breathing characteristic of sleep apnea. As sleep apnea can have serious consequences in children including impacts on growth, intelligence, and behavior, it is important to identify correctable causes.
When sleep is disrupted in young children, especially those who have yet to finish growing, there can be significant consequences. Growth hormone is secreted during the night during specific sleep stages.
Deep, non-REM sleep that occurs early in the night seems especially important for its secretion. This sleep predominates in the first third of the night. If this sleep is disrupted, growth may not occur normally. Children who are affected may begin to fall off their growth curve: for example, if a child was in the 50th percentile by height and weight in early development, the affected child may fall into the 10th percentile over time.
As an example of the impacts of sleep disorders on normal growth, it is known that sleep apnea in children can have profound effects on growth. These children have periodic obstructions in their upper airway that can cause snoring or pauses in their breathing. The body awakens itself into lighter sleep to open the airway and resume normal breathing. As such, deeper sleep may become fragmented and growth hormone secretion may be compromised.