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Toddler sleep apnea on the rise

Susan Kim, Stephanie Graham

Toddler sleep apnea on the rise

CREATED Oct. 12, 2012 - UPDATED: Oct. 12, 2012

MILWAUKEE- According to a recent study, more than half of parents believe snoring signifies a good night's sleep. But pediatricians have a warning: Loud snoring can actually be the sign of a serious sleep disorder.

Kelley Ortiz remembers the night she woke to the sounds of her child snoring. "My husband snores pretty loud, and she was giving him some competition!"

Kelley also noticed her coughing and gasping for air. Jacqualynn was experiencing symptoms of sleep apnea, a disorder characterized by pauses in breathing due to a blocked airway.

Dr. Judith Owens is with the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"When you're not breathing your oxygen level goes down, and even small dips in oxygen can cause problems, particularly to the developing brain," Dr. Owens explains.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says, to the surprise of many parents, childhood sleep apnea is extremely common, and more cases are popping up at sleep centers across the country, typically in children between the ages of two and six. One of the most important risk factors is enlarged tonsils and adenoids.

Dr. Merrill Wise with the American Academy of Sleep Medicine says another major risk factor is emerging: Obesity. "When children are overweight, some of that weight is in the neck and the structures around the airway, and so it can have a compressive effect."

Dr. Wise believes the condition is often confused with ADHD. How is a sleep apnea diagnosis made? An overnight sleep study is the gold standard.

Treatment is often successful, and can include removal of tonsils and adenoids, weight loss, and a special breathing machine, known as a CPAP.

"Adults with sleep apnea have a higher risk for hyper tension, strokes, other kinds of cardiovascular disease, and so we also worry that children who are left untreated may develop those longer term consequences," Dr. Owens warns.

After having her tonsils and adenoids removed, the difference for 3-year-old Jacqualynn is night and day!

Kelley beams, "she's cheerful. She's happy. She sleeps through the night."

Children who have sleep apnea also tend to sweat a lot at night. Experts say that's because they're working harder to breathe. If your child is showing signs of sleep apnea, it's important to call your pediatrician.