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Childhood snoring could be dangerous

When young children snore it could be  a sign of a serious problem.  NBC's Robert Bazell reports on new evidence that suggests tonsils could be the culprit.

When three-and-a-half-year-old Riley Donahue goes to sleep, it is anything but peaceful. She snores. Loudly.

Experts say severe snoring in children is not cute. It could signal serious health problems.

Recent studies in sleep labs, such as the one at the Children's Hospital of Denver, find snoring is a common sign of obstructive sleep apnea. The condition can disrupt kids' sleep enough to cause learning and behavioral problems.

"[For] some children who are lower school performers, if you correct their sleep apnea, their school performance actually increases in the next academic year," says Dr. Norman Friedman of the Children's Hospital.

The cause of Donahue's sleep apnea was enlarged tonsils. They were making it difficult for her to swallow so she was not eating properly and was drained of energy. The solution — a tonsillectomy.

Traditionally, doctors removed tonsils to treat recurrent throat infections. But increasingly, the operation is performed to treat sleep problems in children that can be very dangerous.

Thirty years ago doctors performed about a million tonsillectomies a year — it seemed that almost every child had one. But doctors realized most were not necessary and today there are only about a quarter as many. Now the numbers are increasing again to treat sleep apnea.

A few weeks after the surgery, Donahue's sleep has changed dramatically. Her parents say she is eating normally again and improving in other ways.

"She seems like she has more energy during the day," says her father, Chalmer Donahue. "She has a lot more energy!"

Doctors agree that every child who snores does not need a tonsillectomy, but snoring can be a sign of a serious problem that can be fixed.