Can sleep apnea be a cause of temper tantrums?

According to a Florida grandmother, yes.

The Sunshine State grandma says a school official arrested her 6-year-old granddaughter after the girl threw a tantrum at school, which the grandmother attributed to a lack of sleep caused by sleep apnea.

School officials balked at the explanation, citing many people also have sleep apnea but did not behave like the girl.

But, can a lack of sleep caused by sleep apnea and other sleep disorders contribute to temper tantrums?

A 2017 Miami Herald article explains that when kids don't get enough sleep, they tend to be more irritable.

'Not getting enough sleep can make children irritable, just like adults who don't get enough sleep,' said Dr. Sean Endsley of Legends Dental in Waco, Texas. Legends treats both adults and children for sleep apnea.

The difference is, many adults can keep their irritability under control, whereas children typically cannot.

According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, about 22 million American adults and children are living with sleep apnea.

The condition, commonly caused by airway obstruction, causes an interruption in breathing during sleep. This interruption causes sufferers to continuously wake up throughout the night - which means a significant lack of rest.

'When you have sleep apnea, you don't get to stage 3 sleep - the part of the sleep cycle that is restorative,' Endsley said.

Stage 3 sleep, also known as non-rapid eye movement sleep, non-REM sleep and NREM sleep, is where brain organization functions are managed, memories are organized and where cognition processes occur. It's also where growth hormone secretion is regulated.

'So, if you aren't ever getting to stage 3 sleep, you are missing out on significant body and brain benefits,' Endsley said.

Missing out on these benefits can show in different ways. Some kids suffer in school, have attention and mood issues, or get sick more frequently than their peers who are getting enough sleep.

These mood issues can often look like attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity (ADD/ADHD) or oppositional defiant disorder. As the symptoms of these conditions and the side effects of sleep apnea or sleep disturbances are so similar, many parents take their children to the doctor for these mood conditions.

This also often results in prescriptions.

'In many cases, children are ending up on mood-altering medications when all they need is sleep,' Endsley said.

Signs of sleep apnea include regular snoring, gasping for breath, insomnia or restlessness during the night, and daytime fatigue.

'Many kids living with sleep apnea often feel tired throughout the day despite going to bed early,' Endsley said.

 

Sources:
Time. Two Children, Ages 6 and 8, Were Arrested at School in Florida. Police Say the Officer Acted Without Permission. 22 September 2019.
Miami Herald. It might not be a tantrum. Your sleepy child could be overtired. 20 March 2017.

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