Is Sleep Apnea Higher in Pre-Term Babies?

There’s no definitive study showing that being born prematurely increases your chances of developing obstructive sleep apnea, but there are a number of papers and studies that suggest that it is possible. A recent Time Magazine article highlighted a 32% increased rate of asthma, vision problems, and hand-eye coordination in babies born between 24 to 34 weeks. They concluded that by age 17, these children had poorer health, growth and neurological issues, as compared to those born full-term.

One concept that the article mentions is the “fetal origins hypothesis,” which suggest that the stress of being born prematurely (with increased levels of cortisol) can affect various aspects of development. Interestingly, there are also numerous papers describing significantly increased rate of dental crowding, malocclusion, and craniofacial changes in pre-term infants.

What all this means is that the facial skeleton, and especially the jaws, don’t develop fully, leading to crowding of the nasal and oral cavities. Add to this the good possibility that most preemies are more likely to be bottle-fed (which can promote malocclusion). Since soft tissues like the tongue and nasal septum will grow to their normal size, the airway gets crowded, leading to an inability to breathe properly during the day and especially at night. Not sleeping well at night has been shown to significantly increase your stress hormone levels.

Knowing that these kids will be more susceptible to sleep-breathing problems, it’s important to address these issues early on to prevent the various medical complications that can occur later in life.

If you have a child that delivered prematurely, what kind of medical issues did your child have, if any?


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