Obstructive Sleep Apnea in Children: How Facial Development Impacts Nighttime Breathing Patterns

ALPHARETTA, GA – Individuals of any age can develop sleep apnea, from newborns through older adults. However, when the sufferer is a child, parents can be especially concerned.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, up to 10 percent of children experience sleep apnea. Many of these children exhibit symptoms such as snoring, mouth breathing, frequent sleep walking and significant pauses in breathing while sleeping. Obstructive sleep apnea may cause or contribute to failure to thrive, bed wetting, diabetes, obesity, cardiac problems, poor performance in school and difficulties with hyperactivity and behavior.

There are several possible causes of obstructive sleep apnea in children. How the child’s jaw develops can directly contribute to the development of sleep apnea. Facial development begins early in infancy, as many parts of the jaw are influenced by the placement of the child’s tongue while swallowing. Infants who breast-feed often have different facial development patterns than infants who use bottles and pacifiers.

When an infant has proper placement of their tongue while swallowing, they are more likely to develop an upper jaw that is the appropriate size for holding all upper teeth. They are also more likely to have a broad nasal cavity that allows for proper breathing through the nose. Children who frequently use tongue thrusting, such as those who use pacifiers for more than a few minutes a day, are more likely to develop long narrow faces requiring more regular mouth breathing.

Ensuring that a child eats a proper diet can also help the child to develop proper facial structures and reduce the risk for obstructive sleep apnea. Eating a diet that includes a significant amount of whole raw fruits and vegetables can help the child develop appropriate jaw strength. Strong muscles in the jaws reduce the chances of the development of long narrow jaws. Diets of processed and soft foods can correlate with poor muscle development in the jaw.

Dr. Nima Hajibaik, an orthodontist in Alpharetta, recommends that all parents take the time to observe their children’s breathing patterns and facial development.

“Parents should observe their child’s breathing habits occasionally, both during the day and at night. If you notice that your child seems to be breathing through his or her mouth rather than the nose, it is important to discuss this with the child’s pediatrician or dentist,” Dr. Nima advises.

The earlier issues with facial development and sleep apnea are diagnosed, the earlier treatment can begin. With early treatment, it is likely that the long-term significant issues caused by obstructive sleep apnea, such as diabetes and heart problems, can be avoided. If a pediatrician or dentist notices that the child’s jaw has not developed ideally or the child is diagnosed with sleep apnea, your child will likely be referred to an orthodontist for further evaluation.

Many issues with jaw alignment and development can be corrected using orthodontic techniques, such as braces and orthodontic appliances. For those who aren’t diagnosed with sleep apnea until adolescence or early adulthood, some orthodontics practices can fit the individual for Invisalign. This treatment can help correct jaw alignment issues and reduce the risk of obstructive sleep apnea discretely and more comfortably than can be accomplished with traditional orthodontics.

While childhood obstructive sleep apnea can be frightening for parents, orthodontists such as Dr. Nima can help improve your child’s jaw alignment and development in order to reduce symptoms. By correcting the cause of sleep apnea early, most long-term issues associated with obstructive sleep apnea can be reduced or even eliminated.

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