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How a tongue stimulator can help sleep apnea in kids with Down syndrome

Posted on June 27th, 2023

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder. It’s characterized by the repeated interruption of breathing during sleep. While sleep apnea can affect people of all ages and backgrounds, it’s especially prevalent in children with Down syndrome. 

Down syndrome is a genetic disorder caused by the presence of an extra chromosome 21. And it can lead to several physiological and anatomical characteristics that contribute to sleep apnea. 

But there is hope for these children. Through the use of a tongue stimulator, children with Down syndrome can manage their moderate to severe sleep apnea. And they get the restful sleep they need to grow and thrive. 

Understanding sleep apnea in children with Down syndrome

Children with Down syndrome often exhibit physical characteristics that can predispose them to sleep apnea. These characteristics include…

These factors can result in the obstruction of the upper airway during sleep. And this can lead to interrupted breathing and subsequent sleep apnea. 

The impact of sleep apnea on children with Down syndrome 

Sleep apnea can significantly impact the well-being of children with Down syndrome. Breathing that’s interrupted during sleep leads to fragmented and low-quality sleep. And this results in…

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness 
  • Reduced cognitive function 
  • Behavioral issues 
  • Impaired growth and development 

Untreated sleep apnea in children with Down syndrome can also contribute to cardiovascular issues. And it can worsen comorbidities associated with Down syndrome. 

How to treat sleep apnea in children with Down syndrome 

Sleep apnea treatment options often involve a multidisciplinary approach. This typically includes lifestyle changes, such as weight management and sleep hygiene practices, and the use of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy

CPAP therapy involves wearing a mask over the nose and mouth during sleep as the machine delivers a continuous stream of pressurized air to keep the airway open. CPAP therapy is an effective treatment. But children with Down syndrome may have trouble complying with the therapy due to sensory issues, cognitive limitations, and physical discomfort. 

How tongue stimulators can help children with Down syndrome 

A tongue stimulator is also known as a hypoglossal nerve stimulator. And it offers a promising alternative for children with Down syndrome who struggle with CPAP therapy. 

This implanted device works by electrically stimulating the hypoglossal nerve, which controls the tongue’s movement. By providing gentle electrical impulses to the nerve, the tongue stimulator tones the tongue and brings it forward. This helps keep the airway open during sleep and prevents the soft tissues from collapsing. 

Healthcare professionals implant the tongue stimulator under the skin of the upper chest wall, similar to a pacemaker. Two wires stem from the device. One extends to the hypoglossal nerve. And the other aims at the chest wall to detect the breathing pattern. 

Tongue stimulators can benefit children with Down syndrome in several ways: 

Improved comfort – Unlike CPAP masks, tongue stimulators don’t require children to wear any external equipment during sleep. This makes tongue stimulators more comfortable and less likely to cause sensory discomfort or interfere with sleep. 

Enhanced compliance – Children with Down syndrome often face challenges with compliance. But tongue stimulators are more user-friendly. They increase the likelihood of consistent use thereby improving treatment outcomes. 

Customizable treatment – Healthcare professionals can tailor tongue stimulators to the specific needs of each child. They can adjust the settings and stimulation parameters to ensure optimal effectiveness and comfort. 

Potential long-term benefits – Treating sleep apnea in children with Down syndrome with a tongue stimulator addresses immediate symptoms. Plus, it has the potential to positively impact their long-term health outcomes. Improving a child’s sleep quality contributes to…

  • Improved cognitive function 
  • Better growth and development 
  • Increased attention span 
  • Enhanced academic performance 

Minimal side effects – Tongue stimulators have minimal side effects compared to other treatment options. The common risks are those associated with the implantation of the device. They include bleeding and infection. But once the device is installed, the electrical impulses that it delivers are gentle and well-tolerated. This makes tongue stimulators a safe choice for children with few complications and little discomfort.

Not dependent on sleep position – Some sleep apnea therapies require people to sleep in specific positions to reduce their symptoms. But tongue stimulators provide continuous support regardless of sleep position. This flexibility ensures consistent therapy throughout the night, regardless of any sleep-position changes. 

Implementing tongue stimulators in pediatric care 

To ensure the successful implementation of tongue stimulators, a collaborative approach involving healthcare professionals and caregivers is important. Here are some considerations: 

Medical evaluations – Healthcare professionals should conduct a comprehensive medical evaluation, including a sleep study, to accurately diagnose sleep apnea. That way, they can determine if a tongue stimulator is right for a child. 

Individualized treatment plans – Healthcare professionals should work with families to develop individualized treatment plans that address children’s unique needs and challenges. This includes…

  • Proper training on device use 
  • Regular follow-ups 
  • Adjustments to stimulation settings if necessary 

Education and support – Families should receive adequate education and support to ensure proper device use, maintenance, and troubleshooting. They should also be aware of the benefits and expected outcomes of using a tongue stimulator. 

Tongue stimulators can improve sleep, cognitive function, and long-term health outcomes. They can be a game-changer in managing sleep apnea in children with Down syndrome. 

Dr. Meghna Dassani has practiced dentistry for over two decades and is passionate about the role dentists play in whole-body health. You can learn more at her website:

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