OSA in children

What is OSA in children?

OSA stands for obstructive sleep apnoea. It is a breathing problem that happens when your child is asleep.

It’s called OSA because:

Obstructive:   there’s an obstruction in the breathing tube in the throat or nose (the upper airway)

Sleep:             it happens when your child is asleep

Apnoea:          your child’s breathing pauses.

What is OSA?

When your child goes to sleep, their muscles relax, including those in the throat. In some children, the relaxed muscles cause the breathing tubes to narrow or collapse, which can reduce the amount of air that your child can breathe. This makes them snore and at times stop breathing. It is more common in dreaming sleep (rapid eye movement or REM sleep) which happens more in the second half of the night.

Breathing with and without OSA

When this happens, there may be a dip in the level of oxygen in the blood. Oxygen is an important part of the air we breathe in. When the amount of oxygen the body is getting drops, the brain tells the body to start breathing again - often with a gasp or snort.

OSA can disturb the quality of your child’s sleep and cause irritability, poor concentration and sometimes drowsiness the next day. This can all affect your child’s behaviour, their general health and their ability to learn.


What causes OSA in children?

Children may be affected by OSA for a number of different reasons. The main causes are:

  • conditions that make the upper airway narrower, such as enlarged tonsils and adenoids
  • conditions that make the upper airway more ‘collapsible’, such as obesity and Down’s syndrome

How common is OSA in children?

OSA may affect up to 1 in 55 children.  It affects boys and girls equally.

Children are more likely to be affected by OSA if:

  • they have large tonsils and adenoids
  • they are very overweight
  • there is a family history of OSA
  • they have Down’s syndrome

Other things that may cause OSA are

  • an abnormal facial structure such as a small chin
  • narrow, floppy or soft airways (for example, laryngomalacia)
  • rare diseases of the nerves or muscles, making the muscles of the airways weak (for example, muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy)

Can I prevent my child from developing OSA?

You can’t prevent most causes of OSA in children but if your child is obese, they are more likely to be affected. The NHS website has more information about feeding your child a healthy diet. Your doctor will also be able to help.

Next: What are the signs of OSA in children? >

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Last medically reviewed: September 2019. Due for review: September 2022

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.