I was listening to a sleep medicine continuing educational audio course and the speaker happened to mention that being born premature increases your risk of sleep apnea by 3 times normal. Coincidentally, an article in the New York Times reported on the March of Dimes’ efforts of cut down on rising rates of electively delivering babies before 39 weeks. They report that as many as 36% of elective deliveries are now occurring before 39 weeks. In a recent poll of women who recently gave birth, the majority chose 34 to 36 weeks as the earliest point in pregnancy to deliver.
The safest gestational age is 39 to 40 weeks, and with each week that babies are delivered earlier, the higher the risk of complications such as respiratory distress, jaundice, infections, low blood sugar, or extra days spent in the hospital.
For example, infants born at 36 to 38 weeks had 2.5 times higher rates of complications compared with infants born at 39 to 40 weeks. The death rate at 37 weeks is 2-3 times that at 40 weeks. Infants’ brains at 35 weeks are only 2/3 the weight of those born at 39 to 40 weeks.
Another under-appreciated process that’s rarely mentioned is that infants’ faces and jaws are not fully formed when born premature. At the other extreme of this spectrum are babies born with Downs syndrome (DS) or cerebral palsy (CP). We know that these two conditions, as well as various other craniofacial conditions have much higher rates of obstructive sleep apnea.
In a study published in the European Journal of Orthopedics, researchers showed that the presence of DS or CP, bottle-feeding, and non-nutritive sucking habits (thumb sucking), and recent respiratory infections significantly increases the chances of various levels of malocclusion (open bite deformities and crossbites).
This goes to show that any degree of jaw underdevelopment, as well as early feeding habits can significantly increase your chances of developing obstructive sleep apnea later on in life.