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Updated: Aug 22, 2022

Pediatric obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a disorder where a child's airway is partially or completely blocked repeatedly during sleep. Unlike the temporary symptoms that are caused by stuffy noses and colds, obstructive sleep apnea in children is a chronic condition that is often overlooked, misdiagnosed, or even dismissed.

signs of sleep apnea in children

It is estimated that 7-11% of children have a nighttime breathing disorder. Of that, an estimated 90% are undiagnosed.

During sleep, if a child's breathing is disrupted, the body thinks that the child is choking. This causes the body to go into fight or flight mode. The heart rate rises, blood pressure rises, the brain is aroused, and sleep can be disrupted. Oxygen levels may also drop.


Part of any dental examination is asking questions. When working with children, as the parents the following questions as part of the process:

  • Does your child sleep through the night?

  • Does your child snore when they sleep?

  • Does your child sleep with their mouth open?

While sleep apnea can occur in both adults and children, it will manifest itself differently in children; thus the reason it tends to be misdiagnosed. One of the signs or symptoms often seen in children is behavioral issues and the inability to focus. This often gets misdiagnosed as the child having ADHD.

There are several signs that may indicate that a child is suffering from obstructive sleep apnea or sleep-disordered breathing:

  • Abnormal breathing during sleep where a child stops and starts; often sounding labored

  • Snoring or wheezing while sleeping

  • Frequent reports of nightmares

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness

  • An inability to wake up in the morning after 8 hours of sleep

  • Episodes of crying or bedwetting in older children (5, 6, 7, or 8 years of age)

  • Frequent reports of dry mouth or headaches when waking up

  • Chronic mouth breathing

  • Displaying a panicked expression when drinking or swallowing

When a child exhibits these symptoms, as a LifeGuard, it is your duty to examine their mouth and throat for signs of an obstruction. Notes on these symptoms should also be included in the chart and called out to the airway-centric dentist before the examination begins.

Taking time to build a relationship with your patients and watch for signs and symptoms of airway issues, sleep-disordered breathing, sleep apnea, and other health issues will turn you into a LifeGuard for your patients --- and help to protect their health for years to come.

signs of sleep apnea


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