Q: Can Sleep Apnea Cause Birth Defects?

Dear Dr. Park,

I was wondering if you are aware of any link to birth defects or other issues in babies of mothers with undiagnosed sleep apnea? I have only been diagnosed lately at the age of 47, but my first child who’s 22 was born with a cleft lip, has asthma + is waiting for an operation for a deviated septum. My son, who’s 13, is waiting to see a specialist as his hearing is very bad in one ear, he has a permanent stuffy nose and also has learning problems (border-line dyslexia). When my daughter was born with the cleft lip her orthodontist asked me several times if I could think of any occasion during my pregnancy where there could have been a lack of oxygen to the placenta. At the time I couldn’t, but I didn’t know then that I had sleep apnea.

Many thanks for your time.
Kath (UK)

A:  It’s interesting that you ask that question, as a recent study reported that women with OSA had a much higher incidence of children with neural tube defects. There are a number of other studies linking sleep-breathing problems with perinatal complications. One study revealed that snoring alone during pregnancy was associated with much lower Apgar scores at birth. I’m not aware of any association between sleep apnea during pregnancy and cleft lip or palate problems, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a link. We also know that sleep apnea is most likely a major aggravator for pre-eclampsia during pregnancy.
I think your family history is a combination of hereditary risk factors as well an pregnancy-related sleep apnea complications. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way of proving cause and effect. The various problems that your children suffer from could be related to hereditary factors, since you already know that you sleep apnea. There are also external environmental factors that may contribute as well, such as bottle-feeding and the child’s diet. Needless to say, oxygen deprivation during pregnancy is not good for the developing baby.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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