Infant sleep apnea is a sleep related breathing disorder. It involves reductions and pauses in breathing that occur during an infant’s sleep. Partial reductions in breathing are called “hypopneas.” Complete pauses in breathing are called “apneas.” In infancy the frequency of these events increases during the stage of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
The apneas in infant sleep apnea may be central, obstructive or mixed. Central apneas occur when your body decreases or stops its effort to breathe. This results from a problem in the brain or in the heart. Obstructive apneas occur when soft tissue in the back of the throat collapses and blocks the airway during sleep. Mixed apneas involve a central apnea that is directly followed by an obstructive apnea.
The majority of apneas that occur in small premature infants are mixed apneas. Apneas that occur in larger premature infants and full-term infants tend to be central apneas.
These breathing problems can cause severe complications. The infant may not have enough oxygen in the blood. This is known as “hypoxemia.” The infant also may develop a slow heartbeat. This is known as “bradycardia.” The infant even may lose consciousness and need to be resuscitated.
Infant sleep apnea has two general causes. It can be a developmental problem that results from an immature brainstem. It also can be a secondary problem that is caused by another medical condition.
It is common for there to be some instability in an infant’s breathing. This can be a normal part of an infant’s development. Even healthy infants may have a brief central apnea. This pause may be an isolated event. It also may occur after the child sighs or moves. The duration of these normal events is very short. They rarely last longer than 20 seconds. Obstructive apneas are rare in healthy infants.