Sleep apnea is more common in kids than previously thought. It could also be setting them up for failure at school.

Teenager bedroom with posters
  • Sleep apnea affects 30% to 60% of obese teenagers.
  • Sleep apnea in children can cause difficulty focusing in school.
  • Doctors recommend that teenagers sleep eight to 10 hours a day.
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Sleep can be challenging for kids. If they also have a sleep disorder, going back to school this year may be a real challenge.

Dr. Carissa Baker-Smith, the director of preventive cardiology at Nemours Children’s Health in Delaware, told Insider how poor and disrupted sleep could be associated with difficulty focusing during the day and increased daytime fatigue. Ultimately, she said, it has the potential to negatively affect school performance.

The American Heart Association said sleep apnea is common in kids and teens and may be linked to high blood pressure and heart-structure changes.

It added that obstructive sleep apnea affects 1% to 6% of all children and 30% to 60% of obese adolescents, so it’s more common in youth than people think. These sleep disruptions can raise blood pressure and are linked with insulin resistance and abnormal lipids – all of which can harm cardiovascular health in later years.

This is why parents and teachers must be alert.

“Maintaining a high index of suspicion for obstructive sleep apnea is important and can lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment,” Baker-Smith said.

Vanessa Tomlinson and her son Shane live in Yardley, Pennsylvania. Shane has been affected by sleep apnea at school prior to even being diagnosed. “He was unable to concentrate and focus for a period of time, he was often very tired throughout the school day. He was lacking his ‘typical’ energy throughout the day, despite his fun-loving, charming personality,” Tomlinson said.

To overcome the struggle of sleep apnea, Tomlinson recommended that parents trust their own instincts. “Parents know their children best. If something doesn’t seem quite right, or you are noticing different behaviors, please do not ignore it. Consult your pediatrician, who can guide you in the right direction,” she said.

Baker-Smith said risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea include enlarged tonsils and adenoids, but that obesity was also a risk factor. This is why Baker-Smith wants parents to be cognizant of the symptoms.

“Parents who suspect obstructive sleep apnea based upon habitual snoring (more than three nights per week), pauses in a child’s breathing while sleeping, and/or daytime fatigue, as well as difficulty focusing, should consider discussing these findings with their child’s pediatrician. In some cases, the pediatrician may refer for a sleep study, or if tonsils are enlarged and there is a concern for OSA, refer the child to an otolaryngologist,” she said.

Baker-Smith also recommended resetting bedtimes so that children could obtain the recommended number of hours of sleep per night, which could be a challenge post-pandemic.

Her recommended duration of sleep by age group:

  • 1- to 2-year-olds should get 11 to 14 hours.
  • 3- to 5-year-olds should get 10 to 13 hours.
  • 6- to 12-year-olds should get nine to 12 hours.
  • 13- to 18-year-olds should get eight to 10 hours.

Teachers also play a role and should look for signs of sleep apnea in students. Baker-Smith recommended looking for a child who has difficulty focusing or staying on task, or is frequently tired during the day.

“Teachers should bring to the attention of the child’s parent or guardian these concerns. Sometimes what may look like difficulties with attention and hyperactivity during the day may reflect the poor quality or inadequate sleep at night,” she said.

As a former teacher and mother of a child with sleep apnea, Tomlinson believed in open communication, and training on sleep apnea for each child’s teacher is a key component. She recommended being proactive as that is the key to success in being supportive in the journey to overcome sleep apnea.