Sleep apnea during pregnancy: consequences for the children

If there were a room full of people and you had to guess which one had sleep apnea, which would you choose? It would probably be an overweight individual, and for good reason. There’s a strong link between sleep apnea and excess weight, with obesity being the leading cause of sleep apnea. For most people who suffer from sleep apnea, weight has increased gradually, and therefore sleep apnea severity has increased gradually. But what about those who increase weight very quickly, such as pregnant women? Do they still have sleep apnea and if so, does it matter? If they only have sleep apnea for a few months and then lose the weight, does it affect anything? A group of researchers set out to examine whether this weight gain and associated sleep apnea affects development of the child after birth.

This study, conducted by researchers in Israel, included 74 women with uncomplicated pregnancies. During their second trimester, these women completed a sleep questionnaire and underwent an assessment for sleep apnea using home monitoring. After full-term birth, infants were assessed at four time points: (1) within the first 48 hours, (2) 8-11 weeks later, and (3) 14-16 weeks later, and (4) at 1 year. Infant health and development was based on a few scores: general movement (GM), developmental skills (e.g., social, self-help, and language skills) and snoring. At 1 year, they were assessed using the Infant Developmental Inventory and the Brief Infant Sleep Questionnaire. The child health and development scores were compared between those of pregnant mothers with sleep apnea (more than 5 apneas/hypopneas per hour) and those with mothers without sleep apnea.

Contrary to the predictions of the researchers, there was no difference in the health or development of the children at the first 3 time points. However, there was a difference between the questionnaire scores at 1 year. Specifically, 64% of the children in the sleep apnea mother group had poor social development scores, whereas only 25% of the children had poor development scores in the non-sleep apnea mother group. Interestingly, at the one-year follow-up, it was also found that 41.7% of the sleep apnea children snored, where only 7.5% of the non-sleep apnea infants did.

Overall, if we ask if pregnancy-only sleep apnea matters, the answer is a resounding “yes.” We suspect the health of the apneic mothers suffered due to apnea, and according to these measures, the health of the child also suffered. Interesting, long-term consequences of the sleep apnea were found, as children did not show developmental differences immediately after birth, but differences were seen after 1 year. If you know a pregnant mother and suspect she may have developed (or have preexisting) sleep apnea, you might want to suggest a sleep study – for herself and for her child.

Source: Tauman, R., Zuk, L., Uliel-Sibony, S., Ascher-Landsberg, J., Katsav, S., Farber, M., ... & Bassan, H. (2015). The Effect of Maternal Sleep Disordered Breathing on the Infant's Neuro-Development. American journal of obstetrics and gynecology.

Janna Mantua


Janna is a PhD Student / Graduate Research Assistant at University of Massachusetts Amherst with a background in clinical sleep research and psychology. Janna Mantua is a PhD student in the Behavioral Neuroscience department at the University of Massachusetts. Her research focuses on sleep and aging, with specific projects on cognitive health, inflammation, memory formation, and neuroimaging. Prior to her PhD work, Janna was involved in research on sleep apnea and cognitive decline at the NYU Sleep Disorders Center.

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