Researchers were surprised to find that sleep breathing disorders such as snoring and sleep apnoea during pregnancy have dramatic effects on children. The study by Bin et al. was published recently at the annual conference of the Australasian Sleep Association.

The researchers followed 209 infants born to mum’s with sleep apnoea and tracked mortality and hospitalisations up to age 6, developmental vulnerability in the 1st year of school (aged 5-6), and performance on standardised tests in the 3rd year of school (aged 7-9).

The findings showed that sleep apnoea during pregnancy was associated with low reading test scores and a significant increase in hospitalisations in the 1st year of life partly for suspected sleep apnoea in the child. Numeracy test scores, special needs or mortality was not strongly associated with sleep apnoea during pregnancy.

About one in five women develop obstructive sleep apnoea during pregnancy (Redhead et al. 2017). Snoring is much more prevalent with some studies reporting incidence of up to 50% (Izci et al. 2006). Many women are advised that snoring during pregnancy is normal and caused by the increased weight constricting respiration. However, all pregnant women gain weight and most do not snore! So clearly, there is something that can be done to reduce or eliminate snoring and sleep apnoea during pregnancy.

Researchers also cannot explain why sleep disordered breathing causes prolonged negative health effects in the child. A new perspective is clearly needed: Any breathing dysfunction – day or night – creates an imbalance in blood gases (low arterial CO2 followed by low cellular oxygen). Even intermittent low cellular oxygen that happens only for a few hours at night can over time cause cells to function less effectively. A dysfunctional night-time breathing habit may also be passed on to the child which would explain why negative health effects continue years after the birth.

Bin, Y.; Roberts, C.; Cistulli, P. & Ford, J. Impact of maternal sleep apnoea on childhood health and developmental outcomes: longitudinal population record linkage study, Journal of Sleep Research, 2017, 26, 25.

Izci, B.; Vennelle, M.; Liston, W.; Dundas, K.; Calder, A. & Douglas, N. Sleep-disordered breathing and upper airway size in pregnancy and post-partum, European Respiratory Journal, 2006, 27, 321–327.

Redhead, K.; Walsh, J.; Galbally, M.; Griffin, C.; Hillman, D.; Newnham, J. & Eastwood, P. Sleep apnoea and symptoms of depression and anxiety during pregnancy, Journal of Sleep Research, 2017, 26, 31.

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