Child Sleep Problems
Information on bedtime issues and child sleep disorders.
Select a Topic
- What are Child Sleep Problems?
- Diagnosing Child Sleep Problems
- What Causes Child Sleep Problems?
- Help for Child Sleep Problems
- More Information for Child Sleep Problems
What are Child Sleep problems
It’s common for kids to have trouble settling down for the bedtime routine occasionally, but if your child is having frequent problems, it could signal a sleep disorder.
Children sometimes have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. This can worry parents, who know good quality rest overnight is essential for a child’s health. Sleep allows the body to recharge and function at optimal levels the next day. Lack of good sleep habits can compromise the immune system and affect growth.
Unfortunately, especially in today’s hectic lifestyle, children in the U.S. are chronically lacking enough sleep. In a National Sleep Foundation (NSF) poll, results showed than more than two out of every three children ages 10 and under have experienced some form of sleep problem. The most common indicator is frequent daytime drowsiness.
Researchers have shown that poor sleep at night leads to more behavioral problems the following day. The sooner the causes of the child’s bedtime problems are addressed, the better for their growth, learning and development.
Some scenarios that can indicate your child isn’t getting enough rest overnight:
- Repeated calls from the child for another drink of water, book, song or bathroom visit after bedtime
- Waking every 90 minutes at night
- Trouble getting comfortable or complaints of itchy legs
Types of Child Sleep Problems
There are various types of sleep issues in children and adolescents, including:
- Sleep deprivation
- Frequent awakening during the night (night waking)
- Separation issues
- Waking up crying
- Nightmare or night terrors
- Night sweats
- Resistance to going to bed
- Teeth grinding and clenching
- Waking early
Some problems disappear on their own, while others may develop into more serious disorders if left untreated.
Diagnosing Child Sleep Problems
If a child isn’t getting enough rest overnight, in addition to drowsiness he or she may show signs of fatigue, irritability, mood swings and inability to focus and concentrate. Experts recommend preschool-age children should get 11-13 hours of sleep per night, while elementary and middle school age children should be asleep 10-11 hours per night.
The solution may be as simple as setting good bedtime routines that ensure kids feel safe and secure. If problems worsen, consult your doctor. Your doctor will do a physical exam and medical history to rule out any underlying disorders. They may refer your child to a specialist, especially if she is having excessive daytime drowsiness, trouble staying asleep or upper airway issues such as enlarged tonsils or adenoids.
Insomnia is difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or waking too early in the morning. Insomnia in kids may last just a few nights or develop into a longer-term problem. Insomnia can be caused by bedtime anxiety, stress about school, mental illnesses or physical pain.
Sleep apnea is when a child stops breathing for 10 seconds or more. The child is most likely unaware of this happening overnight, but clues include snoring, pauses or gasping, sleeping with the mouth open and extreme daytime drowsiness. If you notice these signs, contact your doctor right away. Apnea can cause behavioral issues, learning problems and even heart problems.
Restless leg syndrome (RLS) can occur in childhood. Some kids don’t notice any signs of restless leg syndrome, they just wake up tired. Others may roll around and changing positions in bed often. For some kids, RLS feels like the uncontrollable urge to move around or an itchy sensation like having bugs crawling on them.
Night terrors go beyond a typical nightmare. A night terror usually happens during non-REM stages of sleep about 90 minutes after a child falls asleep. The child gets up and seems to be extremely agitated or scared, with an increased heart rate and dilated pupils. They may be screaming, yelling and crying, and sometimes try to get up and move around. The episode can be very scary for parents or other family members, but they aren’t harmful for the child. He or she isn’t actually awake and doesn’t remember the experience afterward. Night terrors typically begin after 18 months of age and disappear by 6 years of age.
What Causes Child Sleep Problems?
If your child is struggling at bedtime or waking often, here are some possible causes:
- Lack of a routine or formal bedtime ritual
- Separation anxiety
- Family stress or problems
- Childhood depression or trauma
- Food sensitivity (including formula sensitivity in babies)
- Diet high in sugar or stimulants
- Airborne allergies
- Pain such as earache or abdominal gas
- Urinary tract infection
External factors such as noise, thirst, hunger, heat, or cold, a wet bed and even uncomfortable pajamas may keep your child awake at night.
Help for Children with Sleep Problems
Children often outgrow these issues as they get older. More serious disorders require medical treatment, which depends on the type of problem.
Night terrors seldom require medical intervention. In most cases, keeping your child comfortable is all that is needed until the episode passes.
Children often outgrow sleepwalking, but safety precautions should be taken in the meanwhile.
Treatment for nighttime bedwetting can involve bladder control training, reinforcement and responsibility training, conditioning or medication.
Anxiety related to bedtime may be relieved by developing coping strategies like reassurance, calm bedtime routines and cognitive behavior therapy.
Children with sleep apnea may benefit from having their tonsils and adenoids removed. Another option is treatment with nasal continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP).
Natural supplements are another option. Serenite Jr.™ for Restful Sleep in Children is an herbal supplement that supports healthy sleep patterns in kids. It helps settle occasional nighttime restlessness and fussiness and helps promote rest.
More Information for Child Sleep Problems
Tips for good sleep habits
Follow these tips to help cope with child sleep problems:
- Create a familiar routine for bedtime - feed, bath, cuddle, saying goodnight, a story or lullaby
- Interact with your child at bedtime in a loving, yet firm manner so that he or she becomes accustomed to the bedtime routine
- Establish a regular daily routine by maintaining the same waking time, meal time, nap time and play time for your baby or child. This makes going to bed easier and at the same time helps them to feel secure.
- Ensure that sleep routines used for your baby can be used anywhere, as this will enable your baby to sleep away from home
- Find your child’s ideal bedtime by observing in the evening when he or she is starting to wind down and tire
- Ensure that children are physically active throughout the day and get plenty of fresh air
- Dim the lights in the evening as bedtime approaches, and if possible, take them outside into the bright light in the morning – light signals the brain into the right sleep-awake cycle
- Avoid giving your child food, snacks or drinks that contain sugar and caffeine (chocolate, cola), as it disrupts the sleep cycle
- Provide a night light if your child does not like the dark
- Reduce your child’s TV watching to two hours during the day and none at bedtime
- If your child is frightened of the "monster in the closet" or of being left alone, promise to return and check on him or her
- Avoid sending your child to bed as a threat or punishment, as bedtime should be an enjoyable experience
- Newton, April. “Sleep Disorders in Children: Symptoms, Causes and Treatments.” Healthline. Accessed January 31, 2020. https://www.healthline.com/health/parenting/sleep-disorders-in-children
- Carter, K., Hathaway, N., Lettieri, C. “Common Sleep Disorders in Children.” American Family Physician. Accessed January 31, 2020. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2014/0301/p368.html
- “Pediatric Sleep Disorders.” Stanford Health Care. Accessed January 31, 2020. https://stanfordhealthcare.org/medical-conditions/sleep/pediatric-sleep-disorders.html
- “Sleep Disorders in Children.” WebMD. Accessed January 31, 2020. https://www.webmd.com/children/sleep-disorders-children-symptoms-solutions#1
- “Sleep Problems in Children.” WebMD. Accessed January 31, 2020. https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/children-sleep-problems