Sleep disordered breathing and sleep apnoea

What is sleep disordered breathing and sleep apnoea?

Sleep disordered breathing (SDB) occurs when the airway is obstructed during sleep. It can range from snoring to episodes of reduced airflow to episodes of complete obstruction when the child appears to hold their breath, then may gasp for breath as they start breathing again.

Why is it a problem?

Sleep disordered breathing causes poor quality sleep and also release of stress hormones which can have a wide range of effects:

Behaviour and learning

Sleep disordered breathing has been shown in many studies to cause problems with memory, attention, learning and behaviour, and it isn’t necessary to have apnoeas for this to occur. 


Sleep apnoea is associated with increases in blood pressure while asleep and thickening of the heart walls in some kids. 


Snoring can be a social issue if the child is sharing a bedroom, having sleepovers or at school camps.


SDB can lead to bed wetting due to hormonal changes and fatigue.

What causes sleep apnoea in kids?

In kids the most common causes are large tonsils and / or blocked nose from large adenoids or nasal allergies. Obesity can also cause or contribute to sleep apnoea in both kids and adults.

How is it treated?

The first step is to assess the child’s airway, sometimes including using a small endoscope through the nose.

In kids, commonly the tonsils and / or adenoids are the main issue and adenoidectomy or adenotonsillectomy may be recommended. If the nose is blocked, this may be due to the adenoid or other causes such as nasal allergy, and may be treated either with medications or surgery (adenoidectomy and / or turbinate reduction). These treatments are successful in 90% or more kids with sleep apnoea.