What are sleep disorders?

Sleep disorders in children happen when they can't fall asleep or stay asleep at night. The 5 types of sleep disorders in children are sleep apnea, parasomnias, insomnia, delayed sleep phase syndrome, and restless leg syndrome.
Sleep disorders in children happen when they can’t fall asleep or stay asleep at night. The 5 types of sleep disorders in children are sleep apnea, parasomnias, insomnia, delayed sleep phase syndrome, and restless leg syndrome.

A full night’s sleep is important for your child’s health. It helps the body save energy, heal, and develop. However, sleep disorders in children are common. They affect almost 50% of children.

Sleep disorders can lead to health, behavioral, developmental, and learning problems in children. Poor sleep makes children feel tired and irritable. It can also affect their growth and immunity. Early diagnosis of sleep disorders can help treat them and prevent these problems.

Sleep disorders in children happen when they can’t fall asleep or stay asleep at night. They can occur due to blocked airways, neurological problems, low iron levels in the body, or other conditions. If sleep problems are left untreated, your child may have poorer health and difficulty functioning.

What are the types of sleep disorders in children?

Five common types of sleep disorders in children include:

Sleep apnea

About 4% of 2- to 8-year-old children have sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is when your child’s breathing repeatedly starts and stops during sleep. There are two types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea. This is the most common type. It occurs when your child’s upper airway gets blocked. Your child stops breathing for a few seconds. But when they wake up, they breathe normally. It can happen due to enlarged tonsils and adenoids, which are throat lymph nodes. It can also occur due to obesity. Symptoms include snoring, unusual sleeping positions with an open mouth, morning headaches, and excessive daytime sleeping. The lack of good sleep can lead to poor attention and concentration, low mood, and behavioral problems. Adenotonsillectomy is the best treatment for sleep apnea caused by enlarged tonsils or adenoids. It involves the surgical removal of both tonsils and adenoids to open up blocked airways.
  • Central sleep apnea. This is a neurological condition where the brain stops signaling your child’s breathing. It can last for over a minute and is associated with other central nervous system conditions.

Parasomnias

Parasomnias are undesirable or abnormal movements during sleep-wake transitions. If your child has parasomnia, they may get up suddenly, make movements, and go back to sleep. Parasomnias affect almost 50% of children. Common types of parasomnias include:

  • NightmaresYour child wakes from a scary dream.
  • Confused arousal. Your child wakes up confused or disoriented.
  • Sleep terrors or night terrors. Your child sits up in sleep and kicks, screams, or shouts. During this, they won’t respond to your voice or other sounds. They won’t have any memory of doing this when they wake up.
  • Sleep talking or somniloquy. Your child talks during sleep.
  • Sleepwalking or somnambulism. Your child gets up and walks or makes other movements partly in sleep.
  • Parasomnias can be genetic. Risk factors can include lack of sleep, disorders that wake your child up from sleep like sleep apnea, forced waking, and certain medicines.

Parasomnias resolve as your child grows up. But it can happen again in 4% of children. Treatment involves comforting your child, treating underlying factors, and increasing sleep times. If your child has parasomnias like sleepwalking, you’ll have to take safety precautions. Lock your doors and windows, clear the floor, or place a mattress on the floor so that your child doesn’t get hurt.

Childhood insomnia

Insomnia is when your child has trouble falling or staying asleep and wakes up too early. It may be tied due to poor sleeping habits, stress, or anxiety.

Children with behavioral disorders, like autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or mental health problems, like anxiety and depression, can get insomnia. The medicines given for these conditions can also affect sleep. This type is called behavioral insomnia of childhood.

The best treatment for childhood insomnia is prevention. Ask your doctor for more information on children’s sleep patterns, sleep hygiene, and setting limits. Make sleep plans focusing on regular feedings, nap times, bedtime, and wake times. This will help create a bedtime routine and establish expectations. The child will then learn to fall asleep on their own.

If your child refuses to fall asleep, place them in bed and ignore them for some time or till morning. But avoid using sleep medicines as they are ineffective for behavioral insomnia of childhood.

Delayed sleep phase syndrome

Delayed phase sleep syndrome is a chronic disorder common in teens. It occurs when children go to sleep two or more hours after their normal sleep time. It affects their body clock and makes it difficult to wake up the next day.

Children with this disorder sleep in, can’t wake up, and feel sluggish. It is seen in 7% to 16% of teens. It is diagnosed by checking the child’s history and their sleep-wake times using a sleep diary. Treatment involves adjusting the body clock with normal sleep-wake times, maintaining a regular sleep cycle, and practicing sleep hygiene. Melatonin supplements can also help treat delayed sleep phase syndrome, although the exact dose or timing is unclear.

Restless leg syndrome

Restless leg syndrome is when your child wakes up with an urge to move or kick their legs repeatedly. Research shows that this sleep disorder can be caused by iron deficiency, genetics, or dopamine problems. It can worsen due to too much or too little exercise, caffeine, and certain medicines.

Children with this disorder have a continuous urge to move their legs. It is accompanied by unpleasant symptoms like tingling, burning, aching, or the feeling of crawling on the legs. Resting can worsen the urge, but moving the legs can give relief. Children with restless leg syndrome have difficulty sleeping. They avoid bedtime and show symptoms similar to those of ADHD. It can cause behavior and mood problems and decreased attention.

Restless leg syndrome in children is difficult to diagnose. If your child has disturbed sleep or moves their legs more than five times during an hour of sleep, they may have the condition. Your doctor will also check your family history because it can be genetic.

Iron replacement is used to treat iron deficiency-related restless legs syndrome. However, there are no approved medicines to treat the disorder in children.

How to prevent sleep disorders in children?

Here are tips to prevent sleep disorders in children:

  • Fix a regular bedtime routine for your child.
  • Make sure your child sleeps in a dark, quiet, and cool room.
  • Avoid bright lights and electronic devices before bedtime.
  • Avoid giving caffeine to young children, and limit its use in teenagers.
  • Encourage physical activity in natural light to maintain the body clock.
  • Avoid or shorten naps so that they fall asleep early at night.
  • Use music or other techniques to calm your child’s nighttime fears.

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Medically Reviewed on 4/6/2022
References
Sources:

American Family Physician: "Common Sleep Disorders in Children."

Doernbecher Children's Hospital: "Pediatric Sleep Disorders."

MJA: "Sleep disorders in children."

NYU Langone Health: "Preventing Sleep Disorders in Children.”