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Chances are you are very familiar with the sounds your child makes, both when they’re awake and when they’re asleep. So it’s alarming if they start breathing heavily while they sleep. But is it serious? According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, heavy breathing while sleeping can be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea, which can be serious.

Obstructive sleep apnea is when a child briefly stops breathing while sleeping. It is most commonly found in children ages 3 to 6 and is caused by a blockage in the upper airway (the passages through the nose and mouth to the windpipe and lungs). The pause in breathing may occur many times in a night, disrupting the child’s sleep. He or she might wake up gasping for air.

In children, the most common cause for a blockage is enlarged tonsils and adenoids (the glands that are located at the back and to the sides of the throat). They may grow too large, or an infection may cause them to swell, which may then briefly block the airway during sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea may also be caused by being overweight.

Symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea in children can include:

  • Loud snoring or noisy breathing (gasping or snorting) while sleeping
  • Pauses in breathing, from a few seconds up to a minute
  • Mouth breathing
  • A nasal voice
  • Restlessness during sleep
  • Daytime sleepiness or irritability
  • Hyperactivity
  • Behavioral problems

These symptoms can be similar to other health conditions like asthma, anxiety, allergies, fever and the effects of some medications, so it is important to report these symptoms to your child’s pediatrician for a proper diagnosis.

Diagnosing obstructive sleep apnea may include a painless and risk-free sleep study. For the study, your child may need to sleep in a special lab. While sleeping, your child is connected to a device that monitors brain activity; electrical activity of the heart; oxygen and carbon dioxide content in the blood; and the amount of air flowing through the nose and mouth.

Undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea can make kids miss healthy, restful sleep, and untreated obstructive sleep apnea can lead to problems with learning, behavior, growth and heart health. If you notice or suspect your child is having these problems, check with your child’s pediatrician.