Sleep Disorders in Children: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

Medically reviewed by Karen Richardson Gill, MD, FAAP on June 20, 2016Written by April Newton on June 20, 2016

Sleep disorder indicators

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?

  • your child lies in bed, calling for another book, song, drink, or trip to the bathroom, for what can seem like hours
  • your child only sleeps for about 90 minutes at a time, even at night
  • your child complains of itchy legs at night
  • your child snores loudly

All of these are indications of a possible sleep disorder.

Most sound like the type of problem adults complain about over a cup of strong coffee, but children commonly experience sleep disorders as well. Read on to learn more about how a child sleeps, the signs of a sleep disorder, and when you should seek help for your child.

How children sleep

0-3 months

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.

3-12 months

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 1st birthday, they are 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 a day instead of two shorter naps. By the preschool years, many children begin weaning off their naps entirely.

Disruptions to sleep

At nearly every stage of development, a baby’s changing body and mind could be causing them to have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.

Your baby may experience separation anxiety and want to cuddle in the middle of the night. Your baby may be learning words and wake with a mind racing to say the name of everything in the crib. Your baby may even have the urge to test out the strength of those fat little legs in the middle of the 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 or sugar may make it hard for your baby to get to sleep or to stay asleep. New surroundings or significant changes to routine may also be disruptive.

Some sleep disruptions are caused by illness, allergies, or conditions like sleep apnea, night terrors, and sleepwalking, or restless leg syndrome.

Sleep disorders and their symptoms

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 with a gaggle of cousins could leave your child too wired to fall asleep 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. Rest assured that teaching a child to self-soothe is not the same as asking your child to “cry it out.” Heidi Holvoet’s book, “No Tears Self Soothing: Effective Baby Sleep Techniques for Settling and Sleeping Through the Night,” offers some advice for gently teaching babies to help themselves.

Sleep apnea

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. However, if you notice that your child snores loudly, sleeps with their mouth open, and is excessively sleepy during the day, see your doctor 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

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) was thought to be an adult problem, but research indicates that it sometimes starts in childhood.

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 have not been well-studied in children. In adults, these include both vitamin supplements and medication. Talk to your doctor about what’s right for you.

Night terrors

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 are not 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.

The takeaway

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.

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