Does your child suffer night terrors about drowning, suffocating or choking?

There may be a very definitive cause for your child’s night terrors of suffocation and drowning, and it will surprise you. 

It may very well be sleep apnea. Yes, sleep apnea. Sleep apnea can occur in children, even thin kids.

I consulted with Dr. Frank Barnhill, MD, board certified family physician practicing child and adult preventative care/ADHD-behavior medicine in upstate South Carolina.

Kids with sleep apnea are sometimes misdiagnosed as having ADHD, and Dr. Barnhill hence sees quite a few children who actually have sleep apnea … which causes breathing problems, including stopped breathing, during sleep, which can lead to night terrors about suffocating or drowning.

Dreams About Drowning Mean a Real-Life Airway Obstruction

Dr. Barnhill explains that night terrors centering around choking, drowning or suffocation are “caused by the child struggling for breath as his or her obstruction to airflow increases and oxygen levels drop.

Children often describe the sensation as being choked, drowning or suffocating.

Experts think they link the actual event to something they have either seen or read or been told about (television, movies, books, word of mouth stories), as a memory, and it creates a night terror nightmare.”

Dr. Barnhill says that the typical scenario is that the child begins falling asleep.

If the child has obstructive sleep apnea, he or she will start snoring. If it’s central sleep apnea, the child won’t snore but will develop “sighing breaths.”

As the condition progresses, the respiratory rate will get interrupted by irregular partial breaths called hypopneas, or breathing cessation (apneas).

Both types of breathing disturbances may cause either partial arousal from slumber, or complete awakening, “as the brain tries to alert the rest of the body to falling oxygen levels,” says Dr. Barnhill.

“This explains why some kids awake struggling to get a deep breath, while others are just partially awake and don’t remember it.

“The latter kids often complain of nightmares or night terrors about drowning or suffocating.”

This is easy to understand, the concept of having a dream or nightmare related to a physical problem that’s happening to you in real life.

How many times have you dreamt you were insanely thirsty and couldn’t get enough water in your dream, only to awaken thoroughly parched?

Night terrors about suffocating or drowning have other causes besides sleep apnea.

Dr. Barnhill explains, “Anything that interferes with the child’s normal sleep can cause them — gastroesophageal reflux and restless leg syndrome, for example.”

If your child has the following symptoms, don’t chalk it up to him or her being a pest; instead, consider a real, physical cause of these symptoms: bedwetting, sleepwalking, complaints of things happening to their legs like “bugs biting,” and sudden emotional problems.

The brains of sleeping children are adept at manufacturing a story about what’s really happening to their bodies, and hence, night terrors about drowning, choking or suffocating in kids with sleep apnea and other problems that affect their body.

In practice for 30+ years, Dr. Barnhill is the author of “Mistaken for ADHD.” He has additional training in Infant, child and adolescent medicine, urgent and emergent medicine, and gerontology.