The battle to get kids to sleep and stay asleep is something most parents can relate to.
Many parents tune out after the kids have finally nodded off, but University of South Australia researcher Professor Kurt Lushington is calling on adults to check on their sleeping children.
Prof Lushington said knowing the quality of a child's sleep was important, as it could be an indicator of sleep-disordered breathing - an under-reported medical condition that can affect a child's health and wellbeing.
"During sleep, the muscles keeping the upper airway stiff relax, and as a consequence, the airway narrows, which can cause snoring, snorting or in severe cases, the complete obstruction of the airway," he said.
"This is known as sleep-disordered breathing, which can lead to a number of problems for children including daytime sleepiness, fatigue, irritability, hyperactivity and poor attention - and potentially worsens school performance.
"The long-term effects are not well understood but research suggests sleep-disordered breathing could also impair cardiovascular and metabolic health.
"Parents can play an important role in the diagnostic process by looking out for the common symptoms, which include heavy breathing, snoring, gasping, or snorting, and stopping breathing altogether - and then share that information with their child's doctor."
In a new study of 1639 children in South Australia, parents were surveyed to gauge whether they saw sleep-disordered breathing symptoms as a sleep problem.
The study, titled Sleep disordered breathing in children: which symptoms do parents consider a problem?, found many parents were concerned about their children's sleeping habits, but they didn't seek medical help.
Almost all parents of children with sleep-disordered symptoms viewed apnoea as a problem, while nearly two-thirds saw snorting, gasping, and being fearful their child would stop breathing as a problem. About half of parents considered snoring a problem.
Prof Lushington said the results were surprising given most parents didn't raise their concerns with a medical professional.
"Parents don't tend to discuss their child's sleep difficulties at medical consultations - in Australia, it's estimated only 4 per cent of parents will bring this up with their doctor," he said.
"While there does need to be more education for parents on symptoms of sleep-disordered breathing - particularly around snoring or heavy breathing being a potential cause for concern, there are clearly other barriers to parents bringing up sleep problems in medical consultations.
"To address this, we suggest medical practitioners need to purposely include questions about sleep at consultations to prompt parents to discuss any symptoms they may have observed in their children at night.
"If parents check in to see how well their children are sleeping at night and doctors routinely check in with parents to discuss children's sleeping habits, we might be able to catch sleep-disordered breathing earlier and take steps to treat it before it affects a child's behaviour and health."
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The treatment for sleep-disordered breathing in children is adenotonsillectomy - the removal of adenoid and tonsils - which is known to improve quality of life and sleep.
Tips for parents:
- Familiarise yourself with guidelines advising how much sleep children need at different ages to function well during the day.
- If your child is getting enough sleep according to the guidelines but experiences daytime problems with sleepiness, fatigue, irritability, hyperactivity, or poor attention, this could be a sign of sleep-disordered breathing.
- If you notice your child snores, struggles to breath at night, has long pauses between breaths greater than 20 seconds, or gasps at night - it's time to bring up the symptoms with your child's GP or paediatrician.
For more information about what a normative sleep is, visit www.sleephealthfoundation.org.au.