What To Know About Toddler Snoring

In many cases, snoring is normal for young children, but if noisy breathing regularly awakens you or your child, it may be time to speak to their pediatrician. Here’s what you should know.

Little blond boy sleeping in his bed. Restless sleep of a baby with a cold. The kid sleeps with his mouth open. My little boy sleeping by the light of the window.
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You’re in a deep sleep, and suddenly you hear the garbled sound of snoring through the baby monitor. Or maybe you’re vacationing with your family in a cramped hotel room and realize for the first time that your little one snores on and off all night long. Could it possibly be that your small, sweet toddler is snoring? What exactly is going on here?

It may come as a surprise, but while snoring is something we usually associate with grown-ups or older folks, children do snore from time to time — and some snore on a more regular basis. Studies have found that about 28% of children snore occasionally, usually because of illness. More chronic snoring happens in about 3-12% of children.

So, what exactly does it mean if your toddler or young child is snoring? And is it ever something to be concerned about? Here’s everything you should know about snoring in children, including what causes it, what its signs and impacts are, if a child’s snoring ever needs treatment, and expert tips for managing a snoring child.

What causes toddlers to snore?

In the most basic sense, snoring is caused by “a blockage of the airway between the nose and throat,” describes Dr. Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, pediatrician and consultant for Mom Loves Best.

The classic sounds of snoring occur because of the vibration of the tissues in your nose, palate, mouth area, and tongue during sleep. According to the Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP), this vibration is more likely to happen — or happen with greater intensity — when there is a narrowing of the airway or relaxing of your airway muscles.

There are several different conditions or activities that may make it more likely for a child to produce a snoring sound. “Blockage of the nose, such as nasal congestion due to cold or respiratory allergies or deviation of the nasal septum, can result in snoring,” says Poinsett, but there are additional factors that can contribute. Children who sleep on their backs are more likely to snore, and snoring is also associated with obesity, she says. Loud snoring, Poinsett says, is usually caused by enlargement of the tonsils and adenoids.

As the AAP notes, enlarged tonsils and adenoids (adenotonsillar hypertrophy) are the most common cause of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) in children. Obstructive sleep apnea peaks in toddlers and young children aged due to the growth of tonsils and adenoids compared to the size of the upper airway during these ages. This condition is characterized by varying degrees of airway blockage during sleep, which can lead to decreased oxygen intake, poor sleep, and developmental, behavioral, and health issues.

Snoring and obstructive sleep apnea can impact any child, but certain children may be at increased risk of snoring, including children who:

  • Were born premature
  • Were assigned male at birth
  • Are of African-American descent
  • Have been exposed to cigarette smoke
  • Have a history of recurrent tonsillitis or pharyngitis
  • Have a history of asthma
  • Have been diagnosed with conditions such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, obesity, sickle cell disease, craniofacial abnormalities
  • Have a family history of obstructive sleep apnea

Typical signs of snoring in toddlers

Snoring in toddlers and young children can range from a soft snoring sound, which you may or may not hear, to a much noisier, more startling sound. Kids who are snoring because of colds, illnesses, or allergies may sound stuffy and snotty while they snore.

“The most obvious sign of snoring is the loud noise itself,” explains Dr. David Sorrentino, a New Jersey-based pediatrician affiliated with Pinewood Family Care Co. As for whether snoring typically wakes kids up from their slumbers, Sorrentino says it depends. Some children can experience a restless night of sleep because of their snoring or may find themselves changing sleep positions frequently. Nevertheless, most kids don’t fully wake up from their own snoring, he says.

Still, while snoring doesn’t usually cause kids to wake up completely, it can interrupt their sleep cycle, Sorrentino says, and lead to issues like daytime sleepiness and behavioral changes. Additionally, if your child has other symptoms on top of snoring, there might be other health impacts.

“Symptoms like gasping, choking, or long pauses in breathing might accompany snoring and can be of concern,” Sorrentino notes. These can be symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea, which requires medical treatment.

When should you worry about toddler snoring?

Getting a good night’s sleep is important for kids’ health and development, as well as the health of the rest of the family — after all, a cranky, tired kid equals a cranky, tired parent. Still, you might be unsure when toddler snoring is something you can safely ignore or when it might be time to get your pediatrician involved.

“Occasional snoring is typically not a cause for alarm,” Sorrentino assures. “However, if a child snores regularly, has loud or heavy breathing during sleep, or displays symptoms like gasping or choking, it’s crucial to consult a pediatrician,” he suggests. Additionally, you should consider contacting your pediatrician if snoring consistently leads to daytime sleepiness, behavioral issues, or growth concerns, he says.

Regular, habitual snoring is usually defined as any snoring that happens at least three times per week. This frequency of snoring impacts about 10% of preschool and school-aged kids, according to the AAP. Of these, only about 2-3% will be diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea.

Although most snoring children don’t have obstructive sleep apnea, if left untreated, it can lead to behavioral problems, developmental complications, and even impact your child’s academic performance down the road. That’s one of the reasons the AAP recommends that any child who snores on a regular basis or has signs of obstructive sleep apnea be screened for obstructive sleep apnea.

Poinsett says that if your pediatrician suspects your child may have sleep apnea or other health conditions that need monitoring, they will likely refer you to an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat specialist) to evaluate your child’s airway. Screening for obstructive sleep apnea often starts with a detailed questionnaire about your child’s sleep habits, daytime sleepiness, snoring, and breathing patterns during sleep.

If further evaluation is necessary, it usually involves having your child participate in a sleep study (polysomnography), where they sleep in a sleep clinic overnight and are observed by medical professionals.

Does toddler snoring need to be treated?

Whether or not toddler snoring needs to be treated depends on the cause of the snoring. If your toddler is experiencing light, occasional snoring that occurs less than three times a week, they don’t need any special treatments, says Poinsett.

Here’s what to know about treating other causes of snoring, according to Poinsett.

Snoring due to nasal congestion

Snoring that is caused by things like nasal congestion from viruses or allergies can be treated with a mist humidifier, saline nasal drops/sprays, and doctor-recommended medications.

Snoring due to second-hand tobacco smoke

Environmental tobacco smoke is associated with snoring. Exposure to second-hand smoke is never healthy for children, so smoking should be stopped in the household, and air purifiers run to clean the air.

Snoring due to enlarged tonsils and adenoids

For severe snoring attributed to enlarged tonsils or adenoids, your child’s otolaryngologist may recommend a tonsillectomy and/or adenoidectomy, which are surgeries to remove tonsils and adenoids.

Doctor-recommended tips for managing toddler snoring

Whatever the cause of your toddler’s snoring, it can be frustrating if the snoring is disruptive to you or other members of your household. If the snoring is impacting your toddler’s sleep, you likely want some solutions ASAP.

Here are Sorrentino’s top tips for managing your toddler’s snoring at home:

  • Establish a regular sleep and bedtime routine for your child
  • Keep your child’s bedroom allergen-free by using air purifiers, washing bedding in hot water with fragrance-free detergent, and minimizing pets in the sleeping area
  • Encourage your child to sleep on their side rather than on their back
  • Maintain a smoke-free environment
  • Address any nasal congestion issues, utilizing saline nasal sprays or humidifiers, as needed
  • If obesity is a concern, work on healthy dietary and activity habits under the guidance of a pediatrician

Toddler and little kid snoring can be downright irritating, possibly distressing, and can sometimes cause you or your child to lose precious sleep. Although it’s not necessarily something you need to worry about, you should never hesitate to reach out to your pediatrician with questions about your child’s sleep. They can help you troubleshoot the situation and let you know if any further evaluation is needed.