What are sleep problems in children?
Children need enough sleep to grow and develop properly. Good sleep habits mean they will be able to fall asleep and stay asleep.
All children occasionally have problems falling asleep or staying asleep. Often you can fix this by ensuring they have a good bedtime routine and sleep environment, with healthy eating, or ensuring they do enough physical activity. You might need to adjust your expectation of what is normal for your child.
However, sometimes children develop sleep problems. These may need special attention and sometimes treatment by a healthcare professional.
The common sleep problems children may experience are:
- night terrors
- sleep apnoea
- teeth grinding
Most children go to sleep within 20 minutes of being quiet in bed.
But some children regularly have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or not going back to sleep if they wake. If it is a regular problem, they may have insomnia.
Insomnia in children is not usually a serious problem. However, it can cause difficulties for the child if they are tired and irritable the next day. For parents, insomnia can cause problems if their child is getting up a lot at night.
Tips for dealing with insomnia
Usually, insomnia can be addressed by following an improved sleep routine for 2 weeks.
A good sleep routine includes regular sleep and wake times and encouraging your child to relax before bed with a bath and a story. Avoid daytime naps for older children.
Make sure your child feels safe at night and check there is not too much noise or light in their room (though they should get plenty of natural light during the day). Avoid any drinks containing caffeine.
Occasionally, insomnia can be a symptom of depression, an anxiety disorder or hyperactivity. If your child has insomnia a lot, see your child’s doctor.
Sleepwalking is fairly common in children aged 2 years to the early teens. There is no obvious cause of sleepwalking but it can run in families.
Sleepwalking can be more likely if your child is overtired, has a high temperature or is feeling stressed or anxious.
Some children have only mild episodes and may only sit up in bed, whereas some get out of bed, walk up and down stairs or even try to leave the house. Other children may try to eat, drink or use the toilet while asleep.
A sleepwalker usually:
- has a blank, staring expression
- is very difficult to wake up
- does not seem to hear or notice anyone
- can’t remember the episode the next day
- may be confused when they first wake up
Read more about sleepwalking in children.
Children with night terrors usually wake within the first few hours of going to sleep and scream or call out. The terror may last for several minutes, or sometimes up to half an hour or more. Usually the child’s eyes are wide open, but are staring and not focused. Night terrors can frighten parents, but they are harmless for the child and are a normal part of sleep.
If your child has night terrors:
- don’t wake them during the terror
- be calm and stay with your child, and wait for it to pass (don’t try to wake them)
Night terrors can make children anxious about going to bed and might make sleep problems worse. If you are worried, talk to your doctor as counselling or sometimes medications can help.
Read more about nightmares and night terrors.
A child with sleep apnoea usually snores and stops breathing for a few seconds when sleeping. This signals the brain to wake them up. The sequence of not breathing followed by briefly waking up may happen many times during the night. While children seldom remember waking up, they may be tired or cranky during the daytime. A common cause of sleep apnoea in children is enlarged tonsils or adenoids (lymph nodes located in the throat behind the nose).
If you think that your child has sleep apnoea, talk with your child's doctor.
Hypersomnia is a condition in which your child sleeps far more than is normal for their age. A child who has hypersomnia is always tired, even after a good night’s sleep. A young child with hypersomnia may often be whiny and irritable. Other symptoms are lack of concentration and poor memory.
If you think your child has hypersomnia, set a clear routine of bedtime and nap times for several days. If things don’t change, see your child’s doctor.
Some children grind or clench their teeth while asleep. The medical term is ‘bruxism’. Children who do this may also grind or clench their teeth when angry, upset or anxious.
It’s not a problem it happens once in a while, but repeated grinding or clenching of the teeth can damage the teeth or the jaw.
If you child grinds or clenches their teeth during sleep, try reducing their stress. Plan a quiet time of at least half an hour before bedtime no matter how old the child is.
If the grinding happens often or is violent, talk with your child’s doctor and dentist. Special tooth guards may need to be used for naps and night-time sleep.
Read more about teeth grinding.
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Last reviewed: August 2021