04 Feb Rising levels of childhood obesity are being partly blamed for a big increase in WA children being referred to hospital with sleep problems.
Princess Margaret Hospital’s sleep clinic has had 283 referrals in the past six months, more than the 250 new cases received in the 2011-12 financial year.
The spike in referrals has led to waiting times for children to be seen in the clinic reaching between 18 months and two years unless their case is considered urgent.
Respiratory and sleep consultant Adelaide Withers said it was a concern that more obese children were having sleep problems, particularly because their condition was often only treatable with weight loss.
“It’s definitely had an impact,” she said. “The incidence of sleep apnoea is rising and one of the contributing factors is the increased rate of obesity.
The clinic deals with various sleep problems from physical conditions such as sleep apnoea to psychological conditions, including night terrors.
Dr Withers said a common cause of sleep apnoea — when breathing stops momentarily during sleep because the walls of the throat come together — in children was enlarged tonsils and the problem could often be remedied by removing the tonsils.
But obesity is the most common cause of sleep apnoea in adults and increasingly in children.
“When people are obese, they often have a lot of excess fat around their neck which collapses their windpipe when they’re asleep,” Dr Withers said.
“It also puts an extra load on their chest. It’s harder for your chest to expand when you’re obese.
“This gets a lot worse when you’re asleep because when you’re asleep, all of the muscles in your body relax.”
Obese children often also have larger tonsils, exacerbating the problem.
Some obese children with sleep apnoea resort to using a CPAP machine — a device which blows air into the windpipe to stop it collapsing during sleep — every night, like many adult sufferers. Untreated, sleep apnoea can harm a child’s health and development.
Dr Withers urged parents to look out for any warning signs such as snoring, difficulties at school, irritability and a lack of growth.