(March 15, 2006) Hear the audio version

My 13-year-old daughter looked horrified when she came into the kitchen one morning. “I emptied my dresser drawers again last night,” she said. “All my clothes are in the middle of the floor.” And she didn’t remember doing it.

That night after Molly went to sleep, she ripped a stack of old photographs to shreds. Then she tore the posters off her bedroom walls. She didn’t remember that either. I was as terrified as she. I didn’t know if we needed a doctor – or an exorcist.

I started with medicine. An overnight sleep study at Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic showed that Molly stopped breathing about 23 times an hour. Diagnosis? Severe obstructive sleep apnea. Tearing her room apart made perfect sense to the pediatric sleep specialist. He told us it was a behavior that has been misinterpreted throughout the ages.

Sleep apnea is more common in children than parents realize, and is easily missed by pediatricians. Sleepwalking can be a symptom, as is snoring. Delayed development is another. Some children are thought to have ADHD, when really they’re suffering from chronic sleep deprivation. My daughter was getting an average of six bad hours of sleep for the 10 hours she was in bed. Many kids are cured with what the docs call “T and A” – tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy. Yet Molly still had apnea after they yanked her tonsils. We stopped her sleepwalking by waking her up 30 minutes after she went to sleep, but that didn’t cure the apnea. For that she needed to go to bed hooked up to a CPAP machine. A full night’s sleep meant she wasn’t sick all the time. Or tired. She also grew half a foot in the first few months. Finally, early last summer she was able to have surgery to move her jaws forward and out from blocking her airway. Now a high school sophomore, she sleeps well.

Parents often think their child’s sleeping problems end when the baby sleeps through the night. Not always! Thankfully, we no longer live in the Middle Ages, and there are wonderful resources available from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. As we learned, all sleep apnea sufferers aren’t middle aged and overweight. Some are 85 pounds and struggling to stay awake in algebra class.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

(Note: please send me an email if you have questions about kids and sleep apnea. I’m happy to help.)