LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Children snore too; once in a while is normal. But when kids snore routinely, and at least 12 percent do, it can be a sign of sleep problems. As NPR's Patti Neighmond reports, those sleep problems are often misdiagnosed.
PATTI NEIGHMOND: John Hedley(ph) says his son Fletcher(ph) breathed heavily at night, little snores like the sound of a dog panting. It didn't seem worrisome at first, but when Fletcher was about four years old he began having temper tantrums, says Dad, at the drop of a hat.
Mr. JOHN HEDLEY: Kicking me, hitting me, just bizarre, and that happened on a regular basis, where he would just - can I have a piece of candy? And you'd say no and he would just melt down, complete melt down.
NEIGHMOND: That's when John and his wife Shelly(ph) noticed something else. Even when Fletcher was in bed for 10 hours, he woke up exhausted.
Mr. HEDLEY: He would come downstairs looking like he'd been carousing to town all night. He had dark circles under his eyes. He would, you know, have this -man, I did something too much last night - look.
NEIGHMOND: So when the pediatrician suggested a sleep specialist, the Hedleys jumped at the chance to see Dr. Judy Owens.
Doctor JUDITH OWENS (Hasbro Children's Hospital): What we found was that Fletcher was having periodic breathing pauses throughout the course of the night, what we call apneic episodes.
NEIGHMOND: Owens directs the pediatric sleep disorder's clinic at Hasbro Children's Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island.
Dr. OWENS: He was having frequent arousals from sleep and the quality of his sleep was being compromised. And he also had some dips in his oxygen level. And of course, as you can imagine, a developing brain really needs oxygen.
NEIGHMOND: Fletcher was diagnosed with mild sleep apnea. His sleep was disrupted when he literally paused to catch his breath. Sleep disorders can be inherited or caused by a number of things that narrow airways - asthma, allergies, being overweight, or like Fletcher having enlarged tonsils. Doctor Owen says there's good research suggesting that removing Fletcher's tonsils should cure his sleep disorder and his tantrums.
Dr. OWENS: When you don't get a good night's sleep, you're cranky and you can't pay attention as well and you're not as productive, and you know, so we all sort of know that intuitively.
NEIGHMOND: And the same is true for children. One study even looked at sleep problems and academic achievements.
Dr. OWENS: They looked at kids that were in the bottom 10th percentile of their class. And first of all, they determined that those kids were much more likely to snore and have symptoms of sleep apnea than kids in the top 10th percentile, but that furthermore when they treated their sleep apnea, their percentile significantly improved.
NEIGHMOND: If a child has allergies or asthma, medication can help. If kids are overweight, a regimen of exercise and diet can help them a lose pounds and sleep better. And often a tonsillectomy helps. Bottom line, says Owens: what looks like a behavior problem or learning disorder can be something else.
Dr. OWENS: Any child who presents with mood issues, irritability, impulsivity, aggressive behavior, presents with attention problems or with academic issues, you have to think about their sleep.
NEIGHMOND: That wasn't the case with Michael Wasylyk(ph). The 12-year-old was having problems in school. Teachers suggested he had attention deficit disorder. But his mother, Sharon, followed her pediatrician's advice and went to a sleep clinic. Michael was diagnosed with mild apnea. His enlarged tonsils were removed last fall.
Ms. SHARON WASYLYK: He remarked after the operation for the tonsillectomy: Mom, I just can't believe how differently I feel. I just - I have energy. I really feel good. I never used to feel good when I woke up in the morning.
NEIGHMOND: An entirely different kid, says Sharon - happier, confident, and doing well in school.
Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
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