Ask any new parent to name the hardest thing about raising their child, and one answer rises to the top: bedtime. Sleep is an essential component of health in children. What happens when one cranky bedtime turns into weeks (or months) of sleepless nights, though? Sleep apnea in toddlers could actually have serious lasting effects on your toddler’s health. Here’s what you should know.

Is sleep apnea in toddlers dangerous?

As with adults, sleep apnea in toddlers can be very dangerous. Effects can range from acutely mild to serious in the long-term.

The most common health risks for sleep apnea in toddlers include the following:

  • Increased hyperactivity and inattention
  • Difficulties in neurocognitive function
  • Poor school performance
  • Lower IQ scores
  • Future obesity

Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

Increased hyperactivity and inattention

Toddlers and school-aged children are diagnosed in increasing numbers with ADD (inattention) and ADHD (inattention with hyperactivity).

Toddlers with chronic sleep disturbances tend to be diagnosed with either of these conditions at much higher rates than those with regular sleep patterns.

Difficulties in neurocognitive function

Toddlers with sleep apnea may experience challenges with their neurocognitive function. Simply put, without adequate sleep, a toddler’s brain does not function as well.

Future poor school performance

It makes sense. Sleepy children who are unable to concentrate (or stay awake) at school do poorly when compared to children without sleep disturbances.

Lower IQ scores

Multiple studies of intelligence have found that children with sleep disordered breathing of any kind (including sleep apnea) consistently score lower on intelligence measures. Children who rank in the lower 10% of their class are six to nine times more likely to have sleep apnea.

And these effects are likely to carry into adolescence. One study of snoring (a risk factor for sleep apnea) found that children who snored loudly and often during childhood were at an increased risk of poor performance as teens. This was true even if the snoring resolves. Sleep apnea during the developing toddler years may place growing children at a “learning debt” that is difficult to overcome.

Future obesity

Sleep apnea in toddlers is highly predictive of adult obesity. Both of these conditions – obesity and sleep apnea – are also associated with an increased risk of hypertension and cardiovascular issues.

How do I know if my toddler has sleep apnea?

Many of the symptoms of pediatric obstructive sleep apnea are the same for toddlers as they are for adults. These include:

  • Snoring
  • Mouth breathing
  • Pauses in breathing during sleep
  • Daytime grogginess
  • Irritability

There are other, more troubling symptoms specific to toddlers. Behavioral and developmental problems such as ADHD and slowed development have been associated with sleep apnea in toddlers and grade school-aged children. In some cases, a diagnosis of failure to thrive may actually be sleep apnea.

It is hard to know exactly how many children suffer from sleep apnea. Estimates place the incidence at between one and 10%. Because sleep apnea in toddlers can masquerade as ADD or ADHD (or other seemingly unrelated behavioral issues), g