Obstructive sleep apnea, the most common form of this condition in children, can be potentially life threatening. If certain preventive methods are followed in the early mild stages of the condition, a complete cure can be achieved. Most of the preventive methods have to do with good sleeping positions, timely treatment of any allergies that can cause blockage of the nasal passages, and any other condition that could potentially obstruct the nasal passages. There are also exercises to strengthen muscles, and these can improve the symptoms if practiced regularly.
1. Help your kids maintain healthy body weight
Obesity is one of the major causes of sleep apnea in children and adolescents. If your child is obese, have him/her see a nutritionist or a dietitian. It’s important for your child to follow a diet that will help in weight reduction. Along with a diet, a routine of regular exercise should be followed. Losing that extra weight, even a few pounds, can make a dramatic difference in sleep apnea by reducing the constriction in your child’s throat. Many overweight people have found their condition to be normalized on returning to a normal weight. Sometimes symptoms of apnea have been known to disappear completely on weight loss.
2. Teach your kids the best position to sleep in
If your child has mild sleep apnea, it may help if he/she sleeps on the side rather than on the back. Sleeping on the back can cause the tongue to rest at the back of the neck and block the passage of air. For someone who is used to sleeping on the back, it may be difficult to change the sleeping position. A method often recommended for adapting to the new sleeping position is by sewing a tennis ball to the back of the sleeping suit. This will make sure that your child sleeps on his/her side.
It also helps to raise the head of the bed by about 4 to 6 inches by placing bricks below the legs. Another alternative is to use special pillows (called cervical pillows) that will hold your child’s head up in place compared to the rest of the body. Regular pillows or cushions piled up to raise the upper part of the body will not work, as they won’t be able to hold the body in place while your child sleeps.
3. Get breathing problems treated early
If your child has a cold or an allergy and a stuffy nose as a result of that, it can aggravate or trigger sleep apnea by blocking the nasal air passages. Therefore to prevent such a condition, make sure that your child’s allergies or colds are treated as early as possible. Don’t use antihistamines, however. Antihistamines can make your child drowsy and worsen the apnea episodes. Instead, use decongestants to decrease the drainage and reduce blockage. With a clear nasal passage, the frequency of apnea episodes can be brought down.
4. Control your child’s calorie intake before bedtime
Obstructive sleep apnea can aggravate conditions of reflux and even cause damage to the oesophagus. Therefore it is essential that your child or adolescent with a severe condition of sleep apnea doesn’t take in large amounts of food just before bedtime. As has already been mentioned, it’s important to maintain a healthy body weight so that the condition isn’t aggravated.
5. Have their tonsils or adenoids removed
It has been found that a large number of children are completely cured of their sleep apnea simply with the removal of their tonsils or adenoids. Adenotonsillectomy, along with bringing down body weight, is considered one of the most effective treatments for pediatric sleep apnea. Having the tonsils removed clears up the passage of air in the respiratory system, and this cures the condition. It doesn’t help in reducing the fatty infiltration of the tissues of the two passages of the pharynx that are most essential for the passage of air during respiration – the velopharynx and the hypopharynx.
However, removal of the tonsils may not help all patients. Not all children with sleep apnea are candidates for surgery. Also, children who are obese may need to be kept under observation after their surgery to determine if any further remedies are required.
6. Fix a deviated septum or a swollen tongue
If your child has a large tongue or a deviated septum, it can trigger sleep apnea or make it difficult to treat it. There are some tongue-reduction procedures available that has been used by a small number of patients with enlarged tongues that block the nasal passages. Such patients go through a highly invasive surgery than reduces the base of the tongue and solves the problem. This is recommended only if none of the other procedures work to help your child, however.
A crooked septum – the bone that forms a partition between the two nostrils – can also make it difficult for your child to breathe normally and trigger sleep apnea and snoring. If that is the problem, your child can undergo a septoplasty, during which the crookedness of the septum is straightened by removing one or two of the curved bones that forms it.
7. Have your kids learn to play the didgeridoo
Some researchers have found that if the muscles of the upper airway in the nasal passages are strengthened, the walls will have lesser chances of collapsing during sleep. A British Medical Journal publication in 2005 revealed that playing the didgeridoo is a very effective way of strengthening these muscles. Another study in 2009, published in an American medical journal found that some patients with sleep apnea who practiced a series of throat and tongue exercises for three months at 30 minutes a day, showed significant decline in their symptoms – as much as 39 percent. Consult a pediatrician for more information on these exercises for your child, so that you can battle the condition without having to resort to surgery.
8. Keep your child away from airway irritants
If your child is exposed to airway irritants such as secondhand smoke or industrial smoke on a regular basis, it can aggravate any sleep apnea symptoms. Keep your child away from air pollutants that can trigger allergies or irritate the nasal passages. Even if a parent or someone who takes care of the child smokes outdoors, the toxins and irritants can cling to clothing and be carried to the child. Take precautions while traveling by having your child use masks, if possible.
9. Use oral appliances meant for treating sleep apnea
There are several appliances available commercially that can help to bring your child’s jaw and tongue forward while he sleeps. These oral solutions can help improve the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea. Keep in mind, however, that they are expensive and need the expertise of dental practitioners for installation, and sometimes cause jaw pain and dysfunction in the temporal mandibular joint. These appliances are most effective for adolescents whose face shapes have stopped changing. Smaller children will outgrow them and will need refitting for the appliance to be replaced.
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