8 Common Sleep Disorders in Children

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  • Every parent, at one time or another, has struggled with a child who won’t go to sleep. But how and when do you know if your child has an actual sleep disorder? Understanding the most common sleep problems, their symptoms, and how they’re treated can help you determine if it’s time to take your child to the doctor for a possible diagnosis. Getting help for your child’s sleep disorder can help with many of the effects of sleep problems in children, including daytime moodiness, irritability, lack of focus in school, and behavioral and learning problems.

  • 1
    Bedtime Struggles
    child under covers

    All children struggle with bedtime at some point, and will often delay it as long as possible, using all sorts of tactics. But if getting your child to go to bed and stay there becomes an ongoing problem, it may be time to seek help. Your pediatrician can help you establish some structure with behavioral tips to make bedtime easier. This may include things like keeping consistent bedtimes, planning a regular bedtime routine, and instituting quiet time in the house before bed.

  • 2
    Sleep Apnea
    sleeping-boy-in-bed

    An estimated 1% to 4% of children suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, which is when the airway becomes blocked and breathing stops for at least 10 seconds during sleep. Signs include snoring, long pauses in breathing, frequent tossing and turning in bed, chronic mouth breathing during sleep, and night sweats (because of increased effort to breathe). If you notice any of these, you may want to talk to a pediatrician who specializes in sleep disorders. He or she may recommend an overnight sleep study and tests to understand more about your child’s symptoms.

  • 3
    Sleepwalking
    Girl sleepwalking

    Having a sleepwalker can be a bit unnerving for a parent. It usually occurs within an hour or two of falling asleep and can last from 5 to 15 minutes. In addition to getting out of bed and walking around, sleepwalking symptoms can include repeating movements, looking dazed, being clumsy, not responding when spoken to, being difficult to wake up, sleep talking, and urinating. If you notice your child sleepwalking, don’t try to wake him. Gently guide him back to bed, and be sure to keep dangerous items, such as keys, sharp objects, or weapons, out of reach. If it’s an ongoing issue, talk to your pediatrician about ways to reduce the events, such as scheduled awakenings to disrupt the sleep pattern, bedtime routines, and cutting back on liquids and caffeine.

  • 4
    Insomnia
    male student sleeping in classroom

    Insomnia is when you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night. Sometimes it means waking up too early. Just like adults, for children it can be a result of stress, anxiety, pain, medications, diet and other habits. Symptoms include being sleepy during the day, learning or memory problems, irritability, mood swings, depression, hyperactivity, ADHD, aggression, making errors or having accidents. Your pediatrician will likely request that you keep a diary of your child’s sleeping and waking habits to pinpoint the problems. He or she may discuss ways to create a comfortable sleep environment and good sleep habits, and teaching your child how to relax.

  • 5
    Restless Legs Syndrome
    Boy in bed

    Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a neurological disorder that results in uncomfortable leg sensations and a strong urge to move the legs. These are usually worse in the evening or when lying down. Symptoms include painful, creeping, itching, pulling, creepy-crawly, tugging, or gnawing feelings in the leg. Other symptoms include "growing pains" and problems with attention and hyperactivity disorders. Symptoms of RLS usually get better when your child moves her legs or starts an activity like walking. Sleep studies are usually not needed, but your pediatrician may do a medical and drug history to exclude any associated issues or problems. Treatment may include medicine, behavioral advice, or both.

  • 6
    Nightmares
    Girl with bad dream

    Nightmares are very common in children and typically not a cause for concern. All children have normal fears, depending on their age or developmental stage, and sometimes these surface in their dreams. But if your child's nightmares increase in frequency or become worse, you may want to consult your pediatrician to see if something more is going on. He or she may refer you to a psychologist for techniques such as desensitization, relaxation strategies, or guided dream imagery training. You can also help at home by keeping the bedtime routine light and happy, avoiding disturbing television shows or movies, and comforting and reassuring your child after a nightmare.

  • 7
    Sleep Terrors
    Girl having nightmare

    Sleep terrors (or night terrors) are typically intense episodes of screaming or crying that can last from a few minutes to a half-hour. Unlike nightmares, your child can’t be awakened from sleep terrors and doesn’t remember them. They are usually more disturbing for the parent than for the child. Sleep terrors are often triggered by extreme tiredness, so a regular bedtime schedule and a quiet, soothing routine can be helpful. Since night terrors generally occur during the transition from the deepest stage of non-REM sleep to lighter REM sleep (when dreams and nightmares take place), interrupting your child before this phase—about 15 minutes after he falls asleep—disrupts the sleep pattern and may prevent a night terror from occurring.

  • 8
    Bed-wetting
    Child crying in bed

    About 5 million children in the United States wet their beds. Even if your child has been potty-trained, bed-wetting can become an issue. But it’s important to remember it’s nothing your child should be ashamed of or punished for. Usually children stop wetting the bed between the ages of 3 and 5. After the age of 5, you may want to talk to your pediatrician if it occurs on a regular basis (two or more times a week for several months in a row). He or she can examine your child for a possible physical or psychological condition that is causing the bed-wetting. Behavioral tips or medicine may also be prescribed.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 May 5
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.