A Hidden Cause of Children’s Behavioral Issues

As a parent, seeing your child struggling with behavioral challenges will have you searching for answers everywhere. You might take a closer look at their diet, try new routines, or reconsider ineffective discipline tactics, but one area many parents forget to explore is their child’s sleep quality.

Sleep-disordered breathing is often overlooked, but studies show that poor sleep and behavior problems share a surprisingly strong relationship. This sleep-related breathing disorder can lead to restless nights and fatigue-filled days, influencing your child’s mood, attention span, and overall behavior. It might surprise you, but this often undiagnosed condition could be the hidden culprit behind the common behavioral challenges you’re trying to address.

Let’s dig deeper into this issue and uncover how sleep-disordered breathing, and more specifically, pediatric obstructive sleep apnea, can impact your child’s behavior.

What is sleep-disordered breathing, and what causes it?

Sleep-disordered breathing is an umbrella term for several chronic conditions in which partial or complete cessation of breathing occurs many times throughout the night.

The most common type of sleep-disordered breathing is sleep apnea. In fact, obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA, can occur in children and is characterized by repeated episodes of partial or complete blockage of the upper airway during sleep.

So, what causes sleep-disordered breathing? A variety of factors can contribute to the development of these conditions, including anatomical characteristics, such as enlarged tonsils or adenoids; obesity; and certain medical and neuromuscular disorders.

In the case of OSA, the muscles in the throat fail to keep the airway open enough during sleep, causing interrupted breathing. This can lead to a disruptive sleep pattern and various behavioral and health issues. Understanding these potential causes can be a crucial step in identifying and treating this often overlooked issue.

What is obstructive sleep apnea, and what are the signs?

Pediatric OSA is simply the term used to refer to OSA occurring in children. Despite sharing the same name, the symptoms of OSA can manifest differently in children and adults, often leading to an underdiagnosis of the condition in children. Unlike adults, children with OSA may not always exhibit the classic symptoms of excessive daytime sleepiness. Instead, the signs are often more subtle and can be easily mistaken for typical child behavior or other common pediatric conditions.

Common symptoms of pediatric OSA include:

  • Irregular breathing during sleep: This could range from noticeable pauses in breathing to rapid and shallow breaths.
  • Heavy snoring: While not all children who snore have OSA, it’s often a key symptom.
  • Gasping or choking sounds: These noises might be heard when your child struggles to breathe.
  • Restlessness: This might be seen through tossing and turning or sleeping in unusual positions.
  • Night sweats: Excessive sweating could result from the body working harder to breathe.
  • Bed-wetting: This could be a symptom of your child’s body responding to the lack of oxygen.
  • Difficulty concentrating, hyperactivity, and academic struggles: These behavioral symptoms might be mistaken for ADHD or other learning disorders, but could result from poor sleep quality.

By understanding these symptoms, parents and caregivers can better identify potential sleep issues and seek appropriate medical advice.

How does sleep-disordered breathing lead to behavioral challenges?

When a child experiences irregular breathing during sleep, it disrupts their sleep cycles, preventing them from reaching or maintaining deeper stages of sleep that are essential for restorative processes in the body and brain.

Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to a host of physiological and cognitive issues. It can affect the part of the brain that controls emotions and behavior, contributing to mood swings, hyperactivity, irritability, and difficulty focusing. Additionally, the brain uses sleep time to consolidate learning and memory, so interrupted sleep may also lead to academic difficulties.

Research provides evidence of this connection. A study published in “Pediatrics” found that children with sleep-disordered breathing were more likely to have behavioral issues and difficulties with attention compared with children without these sleep problems. Another study in the “European Respiratory Journal” reported a strong link between sleep-disordered breathing in children and problems such as hyperactivity and aggression. Lastly, research in the “American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine” demonstrated that treating sleep apnea in children can improve their behavior and attention span.

How are kids with sleep apnea diagnosed and treated?

Diagnosing pediatric OSA often involves a sleep study or polysomnography, a noninvasive test that records physical activity during sleep. Many factors are monitored during the test, including airflow, blood oxygen levels, breathing patterns, eye movements, heart rate, and muscle activity. While dentists cannot diagnose sleep apnea, they can help treat it after a medical diagnosis. For instance, dentists may provide oral appliances that adjust the position of the lower jaw and tongue, helping to keep the airways open.

Treatment for pediatric OSA can significantly improve a child’s quality of life and mental health. Addressing the issue can lead to substantial improvements in behavior, attention, and academic performance. Additionally, treating sleep apnea can also prevent future health problems like hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes.

Moreover, the treatment can also have positive impacts on dental health. Sleep apnea is often associated with mouth breathing, dry mouth, and teeth grinding—all of which can lead to tooth decay, gum inflammation, and even tooth loss. By treating sleep apnea, these dental health issues can be mitigated, further improving the child’s overall well-being.

Managing Pediatric OSA at Ada Smile Place

At Ada Smile Place, we understand the profound impact of sleep-disordered breathing on a child’s health and lifestyle. Alongside providing consultations and treatment options like oral appliances, we offer orofacial myofunctional therapy. This involves exercises that improve tongue positioning, swallowing, and breathing—all crucial factors influencing sleep apnea symptoms.

Schedule an appointment with our dedicated team at Ada Smile Place today.