Quality sleep is important for adults and children. But frequently people don’t get adequate rest. For parents, it can be hard to know whether a child who struggles with sleep is simply growing up or has a sleep disorder.
The American Psychiatric Association defines sleep disorders, also called sleep-wake disorders, as problems with sleep quality, timing, and duration. Living with a sleep disorder leads to distress and reduced ability to function.
Sleep disorders affect many children. A 2014 study estimated that up to 50 percent of kids will experience a sleep disorder. According to this study, common types of sleep disorders include:
- obstructive sleep apnea (1 to 5 percent)
- sleepwalking (17 percent)
- confusional arousals (17.3 percent in kids up to age 13 and 2.9 to 4.2 percent in adolescents older than age 15)
- sleep terrors (1 to 6.5 percent)
- nightmares (10 to 50 percent in 3- to 5-year-olds)
- behavioral insomnia of childhood (10 to 30 percent)
- delayed sleep phase disorder (7 to 16 percent in adolescents, specifically)
- restless leg syndrome (2 percent)
A child’s sleep disorder can affect the whole family. But there are ways to help improve children’s sleep. If your child does have a sleep disorder, a healthcare professional may be able to help.
Sometimes it can take kids a little while to settle down before bed, but if your child seems like they’re having a lot of trouble, it could be a sleep disorder.
Each of these scenarios can indicate a possible sleep disorder:
- Your child lies in bed, calling for another book, song, drink, or trip to the bathroom for what can seem like hours.
- Your child sleeps for only about 90 minutes at a time, even at night.
- Your child complains of itchy legs at night.
- Your child snores loudly.
Many children have occasional nights of restlessness or poor sleep. If these behaviors continue over several nights, it may signal there’s an underlying cause.
During daytime hours, children who lack adequate sleep may also:
- seem more moody and irritable
- act in a more disruptive way
- fail to perform at their usual level in school
Sleep is essential for everyone — and when kids don’t get enough, it can affect their health. Over time, lack of sleep can cause a number of physical, emotional, and mental changes in kids, including:
- daytime sleepiness
- shifts in mood
- trouble controlling emotion
- weak immune system
- poor memory
- poor problem-solving skills
- poor overall health
Irritability in younger children is often a sign of lack of sleep. In teenagers, sleep deprivation can cause hiding of depressive feelings and negative thoughts.
Many parents don’t know exactly how much sleep kids need or what typical sleep looks like, depending on the age of the child. Infants are still developing, so their sleep schedule supports that growth.
Most infants sleep a total of 16 to 17 hours per day under the age of 3 months and start to sleep through the night between 3 to 12 months of age. However, this varies a lot between individuals.
For your little one, sleep is absolutely necessary to growth and development. But so is food and interacting with caregivers. That’s why new babies wake to eat, watch your face or the activity around them, and then fall asleep again.
By 6 months, many babies will sleep through the night, preferring to stay awake for longer periods during the daytime hours. As babies close in on their first birthday, they’re likely to sleep more consistently at night with one or two naps during the day.
Beyond the first birthday
As toddlers, children often take one longer nap each day instead of two shorter ones. By the preschool years, many children begin weaning off their naps entirely.
At nearly every stage of development, a baby’s changing body and mind could cause them to have trouble falling or staying asleep.
Your baby may experience separation anxiety and want to cuddle in the middle of the night. They may be learning words and wake with a mind racing to say the name of everything in the crib. Even the urge to stretch their arms and legs could keep them up at night.
Other sleep disruptions can be caused by a particularly exciting or exhausting day that leaves your baby too jittery to sleep soundly. Food and drinks with caffeine may make it hard for your child to get to sleep or to stay asleep.
New surroundings or significant changes to routine may also be disruptive.
Other sleep disruptions are caused by:
If your child’s birthday is coming up and they just can’t stop talking about it, that’s a good indication the anticipation is more than they can bear. Likewise, a nap-free day spent playing could leave your child too wired to fall or stay asleep.
Those are temporary disruptions for which you can make the occasional adjustment.
Looking more long term, your baby may wake during the night and refuse to go back to sleep until you hug or rock them, even as they approach 6 months of age. This means your child likely has not learned to self-soothe at night.
Self-soothing happens when children learn to calm themselves rather than relying on someone else. Teaching a child to self-soothe is not the same as asking your child to “cry it out.”
Sleep apnea is frightening because your child often stops breathing for periods of 10 seconds or more while sleeping. In most cases, your child will have no idea this is happening.
You may also notice that your child snores loudly, sleeps with their mouth open, and is excessively sleepy during the day. If you notice this happening with your child, see a healthcare professional as soon as possible.
Sleep apnea can lead to learning and behavior issues and even heart problems. Make sure to seek help if you notice the signs in your child.
Restless leg syndrome
RLS was thought to be an adult problem, but research indicates that it sometimes starts in childhood, per the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation.
Your child may complain of having “the wiggles” or the sensation of having a bug crawling on them, and they may change positions in bed frequently to find some relief. Some children don’t actually notice they are uncomfortable, but they experience poor sleep as a result of RLS.
There are a number of treatments for RLS, though many of them haven’t been studied well in children. In adults, these include both vitamin supplements and medication. Talk with your doctor about what’s right for you.
Night terrors are more than just a nightmare, and they can scare everyone in the family.
More common in children than adults, night terrors cause a person to get up suddenly from sleep appearing intensely scared or agitated and often crying, yelling, and occasionally sleepwalking. Usually they aren’t truly awake, and most children don’t even remember the episode.
Most of the time, night terrors happen during non-REM sleep — about 90 minutes after a child goes to sleep. There’s no treatment for night terrors, but you can help minimize the likelihood that they will happen by sticking to a sleep schedule and keeping nighttime disturbances to a minimum.
Parents and caregivers can take an active role in improving the quality of their child’s sleep. Simple fixes, like finding a new mattress, can add to your child’s comfort throughout the night.
Experts also recommend several ways to help a child get the rest they need:
- Promote relaxation. Before bed, consider a warm bath or quiet reading. Keep the bedroom lights dim during this time. At bed time, ensure the room is dark and at a comfortable temperature.
- Set a routine. Performing the same steps every night helps your child to get used to a sleep routine. For older children, ask them how many books to read before bed. Post the plan in the child’s room in words or pictures, for example, “Brush teeth, read books, cuddle, lights out.”
- Emphasize time together. Spend a few minutes before bed, like during cuddle time, talking with your child. Ask them about their day and encourage conversation. This kind of activity can help kids feel less restless.
- Unplug electronics. Make the bedroom an electronics-free zone. Start the sleep routine early enough so that the child is away from screens at least 1 hour before lights out.
It’s a good idea to create a positive association with bedtime. Instead of scolding your child for getting up during the night, consider a reward system for getting up and going to bed at the preferred time.
It can sometimes be hard to know when a child is just restless or is experiencing a sleep disorder.
Talk with your child in the morning after a period of poor sleep. If your child can remember a nightmare, talk to them to let them know the images aren’t real.
If your child cannot remember sleepwalking or experiencing night terrors, it can signal a condition that needs medical attention. Talk with a healthcare professional about these events or if your attempts at improving sleep haven’t worked.
You should feel comfortable talking with a doctor any time you have concerns about your child. In particular, if your attempts to improve your child’s sleep have not been successful, a doctor can provide valuable guidance.
Specifically, your doctor or a pediatric sleep specialist can:
- help create a plan to improve sleep that you can implement at home
- diagnose an underlying medical issue, like obstructive sleep apnea
- refer you to another specialist, such as an allergist or ear, nose, and throat doctor
Working with a medical professional can be the next step to better sleep for your child.
What causes poor sleep in kids?
There are many causes of poor sleep in children.
Kids may have physical conditions, such as obstructive sleep apnea, that prevent a good nights’ rest. They may also experience stress or trauma.
Eating habits and lack of a conducive sleeping environment may also be factors. Diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may also coincide with poor sleep.
How do you treat sleep disorders in children?
Often, simple changes at home like starting a bedtime routine can improve sleep. Doctors can treat underlying medical conditions like sleep apnea or allergies. Getting the right diagnosis, from a medical professional or sleep specialist, is often a first step before treatment.
What are three common sleep disorders in childhood?
There are many potential types of sleep disturbances in kids. Some of the most common are sleepwalking, insomnia, and nightmares.
A child who has these experiences may have them less often as they grow older. According to 2014 research, sleepwalking peaks between the ages of 8 and 12, and while 17 percent of kids exhibit this behavior, only 4 percent of adults do.
What happens when kids don’t get enough sleep?
Poor sleep can lead to changes in mood, declining academic performance, and reduced immune system function. A child may seem sleepy and irritable during the day. Teenagers may hide emotional challenges if they are also sleep deprived.
What can I do as a parent to help my child?
Consider developing a calming bedtime routine. Work with your child to find a system that works for them. By giving kids some choice, like how many books to read before bed, they are more likely to agree to the process.
If your at-home techniques don’t work, talk with a doctor. There may be a medical reason underlying your child’s sleep issues.
Sleep is an absolute necessity for all human beings, but especially for little ones who need adequate, good quality sleep to help grow, learn, and function. If you can spot a sleep disorder early and make adjustments, or get advice, therapy, or treatment, you’ll be doing your child a favor that will last a lifetime.