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Can Preemies Suffer From Sleep Apnea?

Posted On April 17, 2014
preemies suffer from sleep apnea
April 17, 2014

Forty weeks is the milestone to reach for a full-term and healthy pregnancy. But unfortunately, sometimes Mother Nature has other ideas and the bundle of joy arrives earlier than expected. Depending on the week of birth, premature babies or preemies are at risk for a number of health concerns from respiratory trouble to jaundice to eye disease to anemia. With the development of the brain not being complete, and respiratory muscles not being strong, can preemies suffer from sleep apnea?

Preemies Suffer from Sleep Apnea

As with children and adults, episodes where breathing pauses during sleep can occur in premature babies. This form of sleep apnea is known as apnea of prematurity. When a baby is born prematurely, the brain and spinal cord have not developed enough for the preemie to be able to breathe without pause. As a result, there is normal breathing followed by shallow breathing and ultimately a halt to breathing.

In preemies, the breathing can become shallow and stop from 5 to 10 seconds, and then normalizes. With these periods of disrupted breathing, the baby’s heart rate drops below 80 beats per minute and he or she can appear to not look well. When the episodes in breathing last as long as 20 seconds or develop after the second week of life, apnea of prematurity is considered a serious concern. In addition there are some medical factors that can increase the severity of the sleep apnea such as infection, feeding and temperature problems, anemia, low oxygen levels and heart issues.

Fortunately, preemies receive specialized care in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at hospitals so that they can be closely monitored for all healthcare concerns. Breathing, heart rate and oxygen are all closely watched. If there is a significant change in any value, an alarm will sound to alert the NICU staff.

Apnea of prematurity is fairly common and usually resolves on its own by the 36th week.

How Are Preemies Treated?

In order to treat preemies suffering from sleep apnea, the cause, frequency and duration of episodes all need to be determined as is the case in children and adults. The less frequent and healthier the preemie, treatment may only involve gentle stimulation when the breathing pauses occur. If the preemie is well and has more episodes, the neonatologist might prescribe an oral or IV caffeine preparation in order to stimulate breathing. Other treatments could involve the nurse changing the preemie’s position, suctioning the mouth and airway, or utilizing a mask to assist breathing.

In the past when the preemie was ready to be released from the hospital, he or she was routinely sent home with a monitor. Some NICUs might not depending on whether  they believe studies which proved there was no benefit to using a home monitor.

If you or a loved one have sleep apnea and would like to explore available treatment options, please contact one of our medical concierges today at 1-855-863-4537 to schedule a free consultation.


About Phoebe Ochman

Phoebe Ochman, Director of Communications for Sleep Apnea Treatment Centers of America, manages all content and communications for the company.
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