Although almost all children snore now and then, 10% of children snore frequently. It is a noise that occurs when the child is breathing in and there is a blockage of air passing though their mouth. There is a vibration caused by the opening and closing of the air passage in the tissues of the throat.
How loud a childs snoring is depends on how much air passes through and the speed that throat tissue vibrates. Children aged three years and upwards are prone to snore during the deeper stages of their sleep. This is called primary snoring and is not associated with serious sleep problems such as sleep apnea syndrome.
Having said that, it is not normal for a child to have loud and regular snoring, especially if otherwise healthy. It could be a sign of an allergy, respiratory infection, or simply a stuffy nose. It can also be a sign of sleep apnea. Many children are screened for snoring to determing whether they are a primary snorer or have obstructive sleep apnoea.
A small percentage of children- between 1% and 3%- also suffer from breathing problems during their sleep. Snoring can be present along with gasps and pauses in their breathing, often indicative of sleep apnea.
Children’s muscles tend to relax during sleep and their airway becomes narrow or obstructed when not enough air can pass through. This results in pauses in their breathing which can last anywhere between a few seconds to a minute.
Throughout this process the brain is alerted to the problem and tells the body to make an effort to start breathing again. Gasping, snorting and waking up ensue. Of course it all affects the child’s quality of sleep, which can result in them falling asleep or becoming exhausted during the day. Sometimes this is associated with behavioural problems.
Factors in Sleep Apnea
Oversized tonsils are the most seen physical factor associated with sleep apnea. If a child’s tonsils are large in comparison to their throat, they may experience the above symptoms. Swollen tonsils can also block airways making it difficult for the child to breathe.
Children who have sleep apnea typically snore loudly regularly at night. Some children, in fact, stop breathing. Children with this condition are often restless and sleep in postions that are abnormal. They are also known to sweat heavily during their sleep.
During the daytime, they are likely to be difficult to wake up, experience headaches, especially in the morning, have behavioural problems at school, be irritable and aggressive or be so sleepy that they daydream or fall asleep.
Image: N. Durrell McKenna, Wellcome Images