Can sleep apnea impact brain development?

Can sleep apnea impact brain development?

Could childhood sleep apnea affect a developing brain? A study published in the journal “Sleep” says this could very well be true. You may already know that getting enough high quality sleep is important, but you may not be aware of how sleep disruption can lead to changes in learning and behavior down the line.

Sleep apnea is often associated with an image of someone who is older and possibly overweight. However, the sleep disorder can occur at any age and has a multitude of causes depending on the specific type.

“By definition, sleep apnea is periodic changes in breathing throughout the night that can lead to oxygen dips, and then recoveries or wake-ups. In childhood, it may occur in a baby born with a smaller set back chin, or a toddler or school-age child with big tonsils or big adenoids,” says Dr. Innessa Donskoy, a pediatric sleep specialist at Advocate Children’s Hospital.

If sleep apnea that develops at a young age goes undiagnosed and untreated, the study suggests it could affect the development of their brain structure – specifically the cortical thickness or the structure of the hippocampus. This could impact their learning, memory and social-emotional development. Dr. Donskoy says recognizing signs of sleep apnea in your child and catching it early is key. She adds that sleep apnea can look different in kids than in adults.

“During sleep, signs of sleep apnea could be snoring, mouth breathing, pauses in their breathing followed by a gasp, or restlessness in their sleep – and they’re going to be unrefreshed during the day,” Dr. Donskoy explains. “But where an unrefreshed adult is probably yawning, slowing down, not doing everything they need to do, or taking a lot of breaks, sometimes a sleepy child appears hyperactive and someone looking at them doesn’t think ‘oh gosh that’s a sleepy child.’”

Dr. Donskoy says to discuss any signs of sleep apnea with your child’s pediatrician, especially snoring.

“A lot of times, people think snoring is cute or normal or even that it’s a sign a child is sleeping deeply at night when in reality, it’s a gigantic red flag that could indicate something is wrong. Snoring is never normal,” says Dr. Donskoy.

The good news is there are many treatment options available for sleep apnea that range from over-the-counter nasal sprays and mouthguards to removal of the tonsils and adenoids. The specific cause of your child’s sleep apnea will help determine the best course of treatment.

If you are not certain whether your child is struggling with sleep apnea or not, there is no harm in checking with their pediatrician.

Dr. Donskoy says one thing is for certain.

“Sleep should be quiet. If sleep is not quiet, then we need to think about this a little bit more,” she advises. “If it’s chronically noisy – like more than three months of snoring – it warrants a further evaluation.”

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One Comment

  1. What a great story and so true. My 4-year old granddaughter had been snoring for a long time and then could tell she would briefly stop breathing, suggesting a more typical sign of sleep apnea (not realizing that snoring was a strong indicator). After a few doctor visits and ENT, had her extremely large tonsils and adenoids removed (plus added ear tubes), which triggered an amazing series of major improvements in development. She now often sleeps a nonstop quiet 11 hours, rarely needs naps, and a quick acceleration of learning new things, greater vocabulary, far more engaged and initiates many comments and conversations, and is just a much happier child. All in a matter of weeks after surgery.

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About the Author

Lee Batsakis
Lee Batsakis

Lee Batsakis, health enews contributor, is a public affairs coordinator with Advocate Children’s Hospital. She graduated from Western Michigan University with a degree in public relations and has worked in health care since 2013. Outside of work, she enjoys reading, exercising, and spending time with her fiancé and two dogs.