Adults are not the only individuals who experience episodes where breathing pauses occur during sleep. It can actually happen quite often in premature babies, and is known as apnea of prematurity. The good news is that this condition usually resolves on its own by the 36th week. 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.
How the Apneas Differ
In preemies, breathing becomes shallow and stops from 5 to 10 seconds, and hence the apnea episode occurs. But then breathing 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.
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 than 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. Today, some NICUs might not depending on whether they believe studies which proved there was no benefit to using a home monitor.
If you suspect that you or a loved one has sleep apnea, or been diagnosed and would like to discover what individualized treatment option might be available for you, contact one of our medical concierges today at 1-855-863-4537 to schedule a consultation.