It was bad enough when nighttime rumblings came from your partner beside you in bed. But now you’re hearing those same sounds from your toddler’s bedroom. How can someone so small and adorable produce such loud and grating noises?

The truth is, children who are 3 or older often snore, usually during the deeper stages of sleep. About 27 percent of children snore on occasion (classified as mild, temporary snoring) and about 10 to 12 percent snore more regularly (called primary snoring), according to the National Sleep Foundation.

While much of this is just normal nighttime noise, loud, persistent snoring is something you should talk to your pediatrician about because it disrupts your child’s much-needed sleep and could be a sign of an underlying issue.

What causes toddler snoring?

When your child sleeps, all the muscles in her body — including her tongue and the muscles at the back of her throat — relax, which causes her airways to be a little narrower.

The sound you hear when your toddler is snoring is actually the vibration of tissues in the back of the throat. The volume depends on how much air is passing through and how fast the tissue is vibrating. 

Some common reasons behind your little one’s nightly concertos may include:

  • Upper respiratory infections. Colds and the flu are common causes of occasional snoring. When your child’s nose gets stuffy, she's forced to breathe through her mouth, which increases the likelihood of snoring.  
  • Seasonal allergies. Pollen, grass, dust and other allergens can make the tissues in your child’s nose and throat inflamed, causing congestion and — yup, snoring.
  • Poor air quality. Exposure to secondhand smoke, e-cigarette vape or other indoor contaminants can make it harder for children to breathe normally, increasing the chances for snoring. Secondhand smoke exposure also makes children more prone to upper respiratory infections, which can also trigger snoring.
  • Enlarged adenoids or tonsils. The adenoids are lumpy lymph tissue located where the nose meets the throat. The tonsils are two lumps of lymph tissue at the back of the throat. These structures are meant to guard your child from infection by trapping inhaled viruses and bacteria. In the process, however, they may become infected and swollen and block airflow during sleep. Sometimes the adenoids and tonsils in toddlers become enlarged for no apparent reason. If that’s the case, the issue usually resolves on its own by age 7 or 8 when these tissues stop growing.

If your toddler’s snoring can’t be explained by any of the common reasons above, something more serious might be going on, such as: 

  • AsthmaIt, too, can make it harder for your child to breathe normally, which can make snoring more likely.
  • ObesityExtra weight can make airways narrower and potentially lead to snoring.
  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). This uncommon but serious condition happens when your child’s airways are temporarily blocked because the muscles that keep the throat open during sleep become relaxed, leading to brief pauses in breathing. The pauses sound an alarm in the brain that tells the body to start breathing again; that can cause a child to snort or gag, wake up for a second and start breathing again. This cycle of repeated sleep disruptions can prevent her from getting a good night’s rest, leading to daytime tiredness, headaches, trouble concentrating and irritability. OSA can be caused by enlarged adenoids or tonsils, but it can also stem from obesity. Children with certain medical conditions like Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and craniofacial abnormalities may also be more likely to have OSA.

What can you do about toddler snoring?

An occasional bout of snoring usually isn’t cause for concern, especially if the culprit is something temporary, like a cold. But if the window-rattling noise is making it harder for you (or your child) to sleep, there are solutions.

  • Elevate your toddler’s head. Tucking a pillow under your child's head can open up her breathing passages — but only if she's at least 18 months old and it's safe for her to sleep with a pillow. You should still proceed with caution, however, since toddlers can use pillows as steps to climb out of their cribs. Babies should never sleep with pillows or other soft bedding in their cribs.
  • Cut the congestion. For colds and allergies, nasal aspirators and saline solutions can help get the gunk out of your child’s nasal passages so she can breathe easier. If that doesn’t cut it for allergies, you can also talk with your toddler’s pediatrician whether toddler-safe allergy medication is recommended. Never give your child any allergy or cold medication without getting approval from your pediatrician first.
  • Tackle possible allergy triggers. You might also try removing allergy triggers from your tot's room. Vacuum carefully, get rid of dusty stuffed animals, switch from down blankets and feather pillows to the non-allergen variety and banish the pets to somewhere else in the house (sorry, Whiskers).
  • Address air quality issues. If you or another member of the household smokes, quitting can curb your child’s exposure to secondhand smoke and potentially help her breathe more easily at night. Suspect the air quality in your home is to blame? Clean and vacuum regularly to get rid of dust, regularly change filters in forced-air heating systems and consider putting an air purifier in your child’s room.

When to see the doctor for snoring

No need to give the doctor a call if your tot snores for a few days when she’s sick and has a stuffy nose or is otherwise congested. But if the snoring is frequent or seems to be affecting your little one during the day, it’s a good idea to speak to the pediatrician.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that all regular snorers be screened by a health care provider because nighttime snoring — and the loss of sleep it can cause — can lead to some behavioral and emotional issues during the day.

You should touch base with the doctor if:

  • Your child snores more than three nights a week.
  • She seems to gasp or have trouble breathing while sleeping.
  • She seems less alert or unusually tired during the day.
  • She complains that her head hurts.
  • She’s having a harder time staying focused.
If the pediatrician suspects obstructive sleep apnea is the culprit, he or she may send you for additional testing, like an overnight sleep study. From there, a pediatric sleep specialist can help pinpoint underlying factors — like obesity or enlarged adenoids or tonsils — and figure out the best way to get the problem under control.