Sleep Apnea In Infants: Risks, Symptoms and Treatments

Latest update: September 25, 2018

Author: Heidi Holvoet, PhD

Is it normal when baby snores or stops breathing for a while when asleep? Sleep apnea in infants can be serious, even fatal: we must all know the risks, recognize the symptoms and find the right treatments.

Central sleep apnea (breathing pauses due to brain signal failure) is the most common type in infants below 1 year old. When baby is under 6 months old, part of her normal breathing pattern is to pause breathing from time to time. Up to 15-20 seconds is said to be normal.

When your baby stops breathing for 20 seconds or more it is time for action: consult your doctor. Other symptoms and signs include gasping for breath after the pause and snoring. Some babies will turn blue-ish.

On the one hand, it is good to know that there is no need to worry when your baby stops breathing for a short while.

But on the other hand, there is the risk of leaving true sleep apnea in babies undiagnosed all too often.

Who is at Risk?

All babies can be affected. However, there is an increased risk if your baby:

  • is premature
  • has Down syndrome
  • is overweight
  • has a birth defect
  • has any condition that disturbs breathing (airway blockage, enlarged tonsils or adenoids, ...)
  • has reflux (gastrointestinal reflux)

Can sleep apnea cause death?

When infants stop breathing while asleep, the amount of oxygen in her blood goes down. Also the heart rate can drop dramatically. All depends on how the body reacts to a breathing pause, and how she recovers from it.

In bad cases, an Apparent Life Threatening Event (ALTE) may occur. This is when an affected baby survives a serious breathing pause. After an ALTE of this kind, a monitor is usually prescribed to help prevent future life threatening events.

The decreased oxygen levels and heart rate may also cause long term problems.

Although some infants who suffered from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) had previously suffered from nightly apnea, no definite proof of a link between the two has been shown [1].

Diagnosis of sleep apnea in infants

When you suspect that your baby may serious and too long breathing pauses, your doctor will do a general physical examination. He will check heart rate and breathing and also measure the amount of oxygen in baby's blood.

Then ideally a pediatric sleep apnea specialist, in a dedicated pediatric center, will suggest taking polysomnograms, either in the sleep lab or at home.

Overnight, a polysomnography monitors sounds (like snoring and gasping for breath) but also breathing, brain waves, muscle tension and oxygen levels.

Advised treatment

Monitoring is the most commonly prescribed treatment for infants. A dedicated monitor then records respiration rate and heart rate and warns you when dangerous levels are reached.

In some cases, medication is suggested to avoid the brain signal failures that cause the apnea breathing pauses.

Further details on the treatment and solutions page.


[1] About SIDS and Apnea at