Some 13 percent of children aged 6 to 11 and 14 percent of adolescents aged 12 to 19 are overweight. The ever-increasing waistlines put children at risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. But there is another problem, often overlooked, accompanying the grim statistics from the U.S. Surgeon General's office. Those extra pounds also put children at risk for sleep apnea, a serious, debilitating and potentially life-threatening sleep disorder, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF).
Sleep apnea is characterized by brief but numerous involuntary breathing pauses during sleep. These breathing pauses cause awakenings throughout the night, making it impossible for sleep apnea sufferers to enjoy a night of deep, restorative sleep. People with sleep apnea often feel sleepy during the day and their concentration and daytime performance suffer. While being overweight or obese are risk factors for sleep apnea, being thin does not preclude a diagnosis.
Sleep apnea, generally considered a problem among middle-aged men, can be a problem for youngsters, too. “With the increasing rates of obesity in children, it's likely there will also be an increase in sleep apnea,” said Jodi A. Mindell, PhD a pediatric sleep expert and member of NSF's Board of Directors. Dr. Mindell is a professor of psychology at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia and associate director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Children's Hospital.
The repercussions of sleep apnea and poor sleep for children are vast. When children do not get the sleep they need, they are at risk for health, performance and safety problems; difficulties in school are often the result. However, sleep deprivation in children is often overlooked or attributed to attention-deficit or behavior disorders.
Dr. Mindell advises parents to be aware of nighttime and daytime symptoms of sleep apnea.
Sleep Apnea Symptoms
- Breathing pauses during sleep
- Restless sleep
- Mouth breathing
- Difficulty getting up in the morning, even after getting the proper amount of sleep
- Behavior problems
Dr. Mindell notes that if parents suspect their child has sleep apnea, his/her symptoms should be discussed with a pediatrician or other health care provider.
To help your child get a good night's sleep, NSF offers the following tips:
- Establish a regular bedtime and wake up time. Parents and children should plan a daily schedule that includes the basic daily sleep requirements for particular age groups. This schedule should be maintained on the weekends, though students can be permitted to sleep in one or two hours on weekend mornings if necessary.
While individual sleep needs can vary, the amount of sleep suggested by Dr. Mindell and other sleep experts for particular age groups is:
18 months – 3 years
- Create a bedtime routine. Bedtime routines are important, regardless of a child's age. It should include at least 15-30 minutes of calm, soothing activities. Discourage television, exercise, computer and telephone use, and avoid caffeine (found in beverages, chocolate and other products).
- Achieve a balanced schedule. Identify and prioritize activities that allow for downtime and sufficient sleep time. Help students avoid an overloaded schedule that can lead to stress and difficulty coping, which contribute to poor health and sleep problems.
To help children maintain a healthy body weight, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) offer these tips:
- Be supportive. Children know if they are overweight and don't need to be reminded or singled out.
- Plan family activities that involve exercise. Instead of watching TV, go hiking or biking, wash the car or walk around the mall. Offer choices and let your children decide.
- Eat meals together as a family and eat at the table, not in front of the television. Eat slowly and enjoy the food.
- Don't use food as a reward or punishment. Children should not be placed on restrictive diets unless done so by a doctor (for medical reasons). Children need food for growth, development and energy.