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Sleep apnoea affects up to 5% of kids, researcher says

A Finnish specialist says sleep apnoea can occur in children as young as two years old.

Saara Markkanen
Saara Markkanen. Image: Anna Sirén / Yle

For years the study of sleep apnoea, a serious condition in which sufferers momentarily stop breathing as they sleep, has focused on adults.

However, Saara Markkanen, a specialist physician at University of Tampere's ear nose and throat (ENT) diseases unit, focused her recently-completed dissertation on sleep apnoea in two to three-year-old children.

Among adults the condition can contribute to significant health risks including high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, heart failure, depression, among other conditions.

In children, sleep apnoea can cause behavioural problems, poor school performance and cardiovascular changes, Markkanen explained.

Markkanen said that between one to five percent of children in that age group suffer from sleep apnoea.

One of the key symptoms of sleep apnoea is snoring, a condition which is much more common among adults, with around 17 percent of men and nine percent of women suffering from it.

A little snoring OK

Markkanen said it is normal for children to occasionally snore, such as during an upper respiratory infection or when sleeping in a poor position, like in a car.

"But if a healthy child snores three or more times a week, it's not normal," Markkanen said.

Past research has shown the sleep disorder has been linked to developmental changes to the face and jaw. Markkanen said that such changes were also seen in young children.

Children around the age of two or three with the condition were observed having a slightly narrower upper dental arch than kids who did not have sleep apnoea, she explained.

As such changes to facial structures can also lead to a continued sleep apnoea condition into adulthood, Markkanen explained.

The specialist said that if a child snores regularly, the matter should be discussed with a physician.

The most common cause of sleep apnoea in children is enlargement of the tonsils, while tonsillectomy is the most common treatment.

Markkanen's dissertation, "Children’s Sleep Disordered Breathing, Tonsil Hypertrophy and Dentofacial Development," is to be examined at Tampere University's Faculty of Medicine and Health Technology on Friday and is part of a broader study on children's sleep.

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