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Kids who snore more likely to have behavioral problems: advice for parents

Parents may want to pay a bit more attention to how their toddlers sleep -- whether they snore, gasp for breath, or breathe with their mouth open -- since a new study published today in Pediatrics links these disordered breathing behaviors to a higher likelihood of behavioral problems all the way through second grade.

Examining surveys filled out by more than 8,000 British parents, researchers from New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that those who reported that their children snored or had other breathing abnormalities while sleeping from the age of 6 months to 7 years were 50 percent more likely than their peers who breathed normally to exhibit some sort of behavioral problem such as hyperactivity, frequent temper tantrums, or anxiety.

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Children who fell into the “worst case” group, where snoring and other breathing issues started early, occurred frequently, and lasted into elementary school, were more than twice as likely to wind up with behavior issues. Nearly 18 percent of them had some sort of behavioral problem by age 7 compared with slightly more than 8 percent of those who didn’t snore.

(The researchers took into account differences between the groups on characteristics including body mass index, premature birth, and whether their mothers smoked during pregnancy.)

While the research can’t prove that snoring causes behavioral problems, it confirms other smaller studies that have also made the connection. “It probably has to do with an abnormal gas exchange where the brain gets too little oxygen during sleep, which has potential effects on the prefrontal cortex,” said study author Karen Bonuck, referring to the area of the brain that governs self-control and decision-making. Breathing issues may also lead to a deficit of deep sleep, which doesn’t allow the brain to fully restore itself and repair daily damage to cells.

That certainly sounds scary to any parent who’s ever heard snoring drifting down the hallway at night, but Bonuck said there’s no cause for alarm.

First of all, a lot of kids snore or breathe funny when they sleep. In the study, 55 percent of parents reported that their children exhibited disordered breathing behaviors -- and most of these children didn’t have any behavioral problems.

Parents should, though, discuss snoring or other breathing abnormalities during sleep with their child’s doctor. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that doctors screen for sleep apnea in children and refer them on for exams with ear, nose and throat specialists if they suspect any problems. Surgery to remove the tonsils and adenoids (clumps of immune tissue that lie at the back of the throat) is the most common treatment for those determined to have obstructed breathing, and some recent studies suggest that it can help improve behavioral issues such as hyperactivity in children with disordered sleep breathing.

Check out our gallery on how to get a good night’s sleep.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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