Sleep Disorders In Children

When someone says to me “I slept like a baby”, you may have to a little chuckle and ask them if they woke up every hour on the hour. People tend to say this to illustrate a good night’s sleep but there is nothing restful about ‘sleeping like a baby’.

Babies wake up multiple times in the night because they need to eat every few hours due to dramatic growth. It is a natural part of parenthood that parents are expecting. When this growth slows down some kids tend to sleep better and will sleep through the night.

This isn’t true for all children though. Some develop sleep disorders, a few of which can be quite scary to their parents. These can range from mild nighttime disruptions to downright dangerous behavior.

Interrupted sleep cycles are not only irritating they are not good for your child. Children need sleep to aid in proper growth both physically and mentally. When a child isn’t receiving proper amounts of sleep they can have weakened immune systems, which makes them more prone to illness. They may become moody and have difficulty concentrating.


This is probably the most common cause of sleep issues in children and adults alike. In the case of children, it may simply be an issue of being afraid of the dark. Monsters and other creepy crawlers whipped up by your child’s imagination are just waiting to get them once the lights go out.

Most children at one point or another will be frightened of their darkened room and the scary secrets it may hold. Nightlights and thorough searches for hidden monsters may be in order. You may try discussing the issue during the daylight hours. There may be a specific reason they are afraid and you can do your best to correct it.

Anxiety may also result from recent changes in the household such as divorce, the addition of a sibling, getting a new babysitter, starting preschool, or a move to a new home. Take extra care to have a bedtime routine that is quiet and calm. Allow your child to voice their fears but keep a firm grip on the situation.

Restless Leg Syndrome

Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) is often confused with ‘growing pains’ in small children. RLS is basically feelings in the legs that make a person feel like they must get up and move to relieve the pain. The very act of trying to sit still or lie down will cause the symptoms to worsen.

People with RLS may report tugging or burning sensations. They may feel like they must get up and move about and feel strange pinching and pulling like sensations. Cases of RLS vary greatly in intensity going from mildly irritating to almost unbearable.

If your child is awakening constantly in the night and complains of leg pains you may want to schedule an appointment with your child’s pediatrician. RLS is treated by trying to alleviate the symptoms. A doctor might also try to help reduce the symptoms via your child’s diet.

Bed Wetting

Most children will have accidents at night during potty training. You don’t have to be concerned with this as it’s quite natural. When your child has been dry at night for quite a while and they suddenly begin to wet the bed you should be concerned.

Bed-wetting is usually caused by a child’s bladder being too small and the child sleeping so deeply they don’t awaken when the bladder is full. It can also be brought about by stress and insecurity. Major stress events can cause a child to wet the bed. Divorce, moving or starting school can trigger the problem.

There are a few different approaches your doctor may suggest to help alleviate the problem. Retention control is where you have your child hold their urine during the day for a few minutes after they feel the urge to use the bathroom. This can help further develop the muscles that help to hold the urine inside until your child can get to the bathroom. They may also suggest you wake your child every few hours in the night to use the potty until the body can take over.

Remember that you should never yell at your child or punish them for wetting the bed. This will only make the problem worse. There is generally an underlying medical reason for the accidents.

Sleep Apnea

This condition can be a dangerous one. Sleep apnea is caused by interrupted breathing during the night. In some cases, tonsils and adenoids may be getting in the way of the airway. The muscles that hold the airway open may also be too weak causing the airway to collapse when a child is lying down. Apnea is more prevalent in overweight children and can lead to serious physical complications.

The most obvious symptom of sleep apnea is snoring. Children with this condition may not be getting adequate amounts of oxygen during the night. This can cause what is known as “failure to thrive” along with fatigue and irritability. These children are often grumpy and are awakened multiple times during the night.

If the tonsils and adenoids are the problem, removing them is the first option in treating sleep apnea. If your child is overweight this will need to be corrected. Oxygen can be administered to the child during the nighttime hours or surgery can be performed. Your doctor will decide a course of treatment depending on the severity of your child’s case.

Night Terrors

Night terrors are a bit different than your average nightmare. Children with night terrors will quite often wake up screaming or they might not wake up fully at all. Some children who experience night terrors sit up with their eyes wide open but are not really awake. When you ask them what is wrong they most likely will not respond to your questions. You may have a tough time getting them to awaken and when you do, they probably won’t remember what happened.

The best treatment for night terrors is to soothe your child as much as possible and try to keep stress to a minimum. Make your nighttime routine as calm and peaceful as possible so they are relaxed when they fall asleep each night. If your child is having night terrors at the same time each night you can try to gently wake them 30 minutes before the expected time and help them calmly go back to sleep. This may help break the sleep cycle and eliminate the terror.

Night terrors are not dangerous to your child and they will likely outgrow them after age five or six. The only time you should be concerned is if your child is getting out of bed as a result of the episode. In that case, you may want to have a child gate over their doorway so they can’t wander out of their room and hurt themselves.

Sleep Talking

Sleep talking is probably the least worrisome of sleep disorders. Some children talk quite clearly while they are sleeping while others may just mumble or moan. There really is no reason for concern and it is a quite normal condition.

The only time you may have issues is if your child is becoming angry while they are sleep talking. This may indicate a nightmare or night terror and you may want to try to comfort them. If a child shares a room with a sibling they may keep them awake with their talking.


Sleepwalking is sometimes a side effect of night terrors but can be a problem that stands alone. The reason for sleepwalking is largely unknown but it is thought to be partially hereditary.

Children who sleepwalk do not know they are doing it and will have no memory of it upon awakening in the morning. The danger in sleepwalking is the child tumbling down the stairs or walking outside in the night. Lock all outside doors and use child gates so they cannot reach the stairs. Keep their rooms clean up so they don’t trip on stray toys in the night. If you wake to find your child sleepwalking simply guide them back to their bed so they can continue to sleep.


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Sleep Disorders in Children: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment