As any parent knows, bringing a new person into the world, while undoubtedly one of the most miraculous and joyful experiences, brings countless worries, sleepless nights, and a host of needlessly complicated baby contraptions to learn how to use. It easily gives rise to more questions than one ever thought possible, fueling an overwhelming desire for impending parents to gather as much information as possible before their little one makes their big debut. After their arrival, the quest continues. As both a professional and parent, I have yet to meet a fellow parent who didn’t want what was best for their child, who at the beginning and end of each day, and every second in between, wanted to make sure they were doing everything parentally possible to equip their child with a strong foundation for life. Whether you are reading this as a soon-to-be parent, new parent, or seasoned parent, this information is important no matter where you fall in the parenting timeline. This is an opportunity to learn what we are often not told in books, classes or from the countless professionals who encounter our children. Before you read on, please take a moment to just sit and do nothing. I know as a parent, this is a luxury, but try it anyway. Feels good, doesn’t it? Now, ask yourself, what were your thoughts in that moment? Did you stop to think about the million things on your plate- what to cook your family for dinner, the next preschool function, carpool schedule, playdates, work commitments, bills to pay, doctors’ appointments, etc.? Did any of your thoughts focus on your breathing? Not surprisingly, the most frequent reply to this question is “no.” Yet, breathing is the most essential function of the human body. All too often, it is taken for granted, easily overlooked in the day to day hustle of modern life. Nighttime sleep breathing is no exception.
Given that sleep comprises one third of our lives it makes sense that it affects the quality of the other two thirds of life. This is illuminated in an abundance of scientific research across multiple professions. Sleeping plays a major part in maintaining cardiovascular health, glucose regulation, optimal body weight, removal of toxins that accumulate daily in the brain, suppression of certain types of tumor growth, hormone release essential for physical growth, and consolidation of new learning into long term memories. Nighttime sleep breathing helps to oxygenate our brains and the tissues of the body. It is the fuel that our bodies require in order to live. For young children, quality nighttime sleep breathing lays the foundation for every function of childhood, from physical growth and health, to cognitive skill acquisition and learning, to an impact on eating and speaking, and to social success and emotional wellness. It is this foundation that sets the stage for health across the lifespan.
When nighttime sleep breathing is not optimal it manifests as sleep-disordered breathing (SDB). This can include snoring or loud breathing, mouth breathing, or obstructive sleep apnea (an intermittent halt to breathing). It is estimated that in the preschool population alone, sleep problems affect 25-50% of children. SDB reportedly peaks between the ages of 2-8 years of age. While all periods in childhood are important, this is considered a critical period in development, as various stimuli shape the developing brain and how it ultimately functions to support physical growth, learning, play, and socializing. As a culture, we are often conditioned from very early on to think that snoring and loud breathing while sleeping are normal and amusing elements of sleep. Children as young as preschool frequently include snoring in the stories they tell and as a behavior for the sleeping characters they portray in their imaginary play. For some, the word snoring is a regular part of their expressive vocabulary. In truth, breathing should be quiet. It should not be effortful and it most definitely should not stop and start throughout the night.
In the coming articles, the following topics on SDB will be presented: reasons for mouth breathing and its consequences, signs and symptoms of potential SDB identifiable by parents, the impact on childhood functions such as speaking and swallowing, academics, learning, social skills, executive function skills, etc., symptoms that often mimic those of ADD/ADHD symptoms, professionals involved in diagnosis and management, simple everyday actions parents can take, and valuable resources for all caregivers.