Why This Childhood Sleep Problem Could Lead to More Than Missed ZZZs

Doctors at UCSF Benioff Oakland’s expanded Pediatric Sleep Lab have seen increased cases of sleep apnea. The hospital houses one of Northern California’s only child-focused clinics for sleep disorders.

By Laura López González

As many as one in four children experience some form of sleep problem, some of which can lead to serious health complications later in life. In spite of this high number, many sleep disorders go undiagnosed in kids. To ensure more get the care they need, the pediatric Sleep Lab at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland has doubled the number of patients it sees in recent years.

The clinic, which relocated from Walnut Creek, expanded its footprint and added state-of-the-art sleep research technology – including a new sleep lab. At the sleep lab, children and their caregivers spend the night in one of the facility’s mural-lined sleep study rooms, where trained specialists start the process of observing, diagnosing and treating their sleep disorder.

A child-sized cot sits in front of a mural with blue flowers.
The expanded Oakland pediatric sleep clinic provides patients and their parents with colorful sleeping rooms.

Sleep technicians attach soft sensors to the child, and their parent or guardian helps them settle into bed with their favorite toy or blanket as the sensors track breathing, brainwaves, heartbeat, and more. On the ceiling, cameras record any tossing and turning. From an expanded central observation room, technicians monitor a bank of computer screens that display the patient’s information.

The bigger Oakland space also means more comfortable stays for parents and caregivers who spend the night in the rooms with their children, sleeping nearby in separate beds.

“Poor sleep has a lot of impacts on a child’s health and wellbeing – it definitely impacts children’s behavior, their ability to concentrate in school, and can worsen asthma and their emotional well-being,” explains Gwynne D. Church, MD, and UCSF professor of pediatrics. Church is the medical director of UCSF Benioff Oakland’s pediatric sleep clinic. “It also adds a general stress to the body and the effects of that might not be fully realized in childhood or even adolescence.”

Emerging research suggests that, if untreated, childhood sleep disorders could put kids at higher risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes later in life.

The pediatric sleep clinic treats about 800 children a year and is one of the few child-focused sleep clinics in Northern California. UCSF Health also has an adult Sleep Disorder Clinic in San Francisco. The Oakland clinic is one of the only facilities that accepts all children, regardless of whether they have insurance. For this reason, Church and her team care for families from not only Oakland but the entire Bay Area as well as many of California’s far-flung rural communities.

Why more children than ever struggle for a good night’s sleep

The bulk of the sleep clinic’s patients are children with obstructive sleep apnea, a condition where snoring is associated with fragmented sleep or abnormal oxygen levels during sleep.

In addition to sleep apnea, the sleep clinic treats children with more complex medical conditions that affect nighttime breathing, like muscle weakness, cerebral palsy and under-developed lungs related to premature birth. For kids with chronic breathing concerns like these, regular visits to doctors like Church will be part of growing up, as they monitor the kids’ health as their needs for respiratory support during sleep change. Treating sleep apnea and other sleep disorders in children can lead to remarkable changes, says Church, which is why she loves practicing sleep medicine. Once they’re able to sleep well again, kids become happier and do better in school. In children living with asthma or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), symptoms of those conditions are often also better controlled once the sleep problems are addressed.

But children aren’t the only ones who benefit.

“A lot of times parents will have been sleeping next to their child to watch their breathing, nudging them throughout the night to help them breathe when they hear kids gasping or holding their breath,” she explains. “That upsets parents’ sleep as well, and it can be a strain on everybody in the family just trying to do what they need to do to get through the day while incredibly sleep-deprived.”

Once children can sleep through the night, their parents can too.

“If you improve someone’s sleep, they just feel better – they’re not tired, they’re not grouchy and they’re able to focus on learning and developing,” Church says.