Adults with obstructive sleep apnea syndrome (OSAS) display substantial heart rate changes associated with obstructive events, and recent reports suggest similar heart rate changes in children with OSAS. These rate changes could assist screening of young patients for OSAS. Six-hour polysomnographic recordings were obtained from seven children with OSAS (mean age: 4.5 years; apnea index: 19.5 +/- 5.1) and from seven primary snorers without OSAS who served as controls (mean age: 4.7; apnea index: 0). Scatterplots of each cardiac R-R interval against the preceding interval (Poincaré plots) were used to assess beat-to-beat cardiac variability at different heart rates. Beat-to-beat variation at slow rates was significantly increased in children with OSAS relative to controls, while variation at fast and intermediate heart rates was significantly reduced in these children. We conclude that OSAS alters beat-to-beat variation in characteristic fashions in children, that the variability changes occur at all heart rates but are most significant at slow heart rates, and that these heart rate patterns could assist in screening of suspected cases of OSAS.