What are sleep disorders in children?
Sleep disorders are conditions where normal sleep patterns are disturbed. They can the quality and quantity of your child's sleep, and lead to problems with falling asleep, staying asleep, or feeling rested through the day.
Children need enough sleep to grow and develop properly. Good sleep habits mean they can fall asleep and stay asleep.
Babies and young children often have problems falling asleep or staying asleep. Over time, you can teach them to settle into sleep by giving them a good bedtime routine and sleep environment. You might need to adjust your expectation of what is normal sleep behaviour for your child.
Some children develop sleep problems. These may need special attention and treatment by a healthcare professional. Sleep disorders are especially common in children with autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Common sleep disorders children may experience include:
- night terrors
- sleep apnoea
- teeth grinding
Insomnia is when your child takes more than 30 minutes to fall asleep. They may have trouble falling asleep when they first go to bed, staying asleep, or going back to sleep if they wake up during the night.
Insomnia can cause problems for a child if they are not getting enough sleep. They may be tired and irritable the next day, and have trouble concentrating, learning or remembering things. Parents may also become tired and irritable if their child is getting up a lot at night and waking them.
Occasionally, insomnia can be a symptom of anxiety. Talk to a doctor if your child has insomnia very often.
Tips for dealing with insomnia
Usually, insomnia can be managed by following a good sleep routine every night for 2 weeks.
A good sleep routine includes:
- having a regular bedtime and wake time
- encouraging your child to relax before bed with a bath and a story
- avoiding daytime naps for older children
You can also help your child fall asleep more easily by:
- checking there is not too much noise or light in their room
- avoiding any drinks containing caffeine (for example, cola or sports drinks)
- keeping phones, computers and tablets out of their room
- getting plenty of exercise every day
- getting some natural sunlight during the day
- avoiding meals, exercise and screen time close to bedtime
If your child is still finds it hard to fall asleep, see a doctor. They might prescribe a medicine called melatonin.
Sleepwalking is when a child gets up and walks around while they are still asleep. It is fairly common in children, especially between ages 4 to 8 years, and children usually grow out of it. There is usually no cause, but it can run in families.
Your child may get out of bed, walk around the house, up and down stairs or even walk out of the house. They might talk, change their clothes or use the toilet while asleep.
A child who sleepwalks usually has a blank, staring expression and doesn't seem to hear or notice anyone. They won't remember that they were sleepwalking the next day.
Read more about sleepwalking in children.
Night terrors are when a child wakes up seeming very scared or distressed. Children with night terrors usually wake within the first few hours of going to sleep and scream or call out. The terror usually lasts for 5 to 10 minutes and may happen more than once in the same night.
Usually, the child's eyes are wide open, but are staring and not focused. They don't seem to recognise anyone. They usually won't remember that they had a night terror the next day.
Tips for dealing with night terrors
If your child has a night terror, be calm and wait for it to pass. Don't try to comfort or wake them. This can cause your child to be confused and make it harder for them to go back to sleep.
Night terrors can be very scary for parents, but they happen to healthy children and are a normal part of development.
Read more about nightmares and night terrors.
Sleep apnoea is where your child's sleep is interrupted, usually because of a breathing problem. A child with sleep apnoea usually snores and stops breathing for a few seconds when sleeping. This signals their brain to wake them up. This may happen many times during the night.
Because of this, your child may be tired during the daytime and have problems with their behaviour or learning.
If you think your child might have sleep apnoea, talk to your child's doctor.
Hypersomnia is when your child is always tired, even after a good night's sleep. They may sleep more than normal for their age at night and take long naps during the day and still feel tired.
Your child may be irritable and have trouble with concentrating and remembering things.
If you think your child has hypersomnia, see a doctor. There are treatments that may help.
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 if it happens once in a while, but repeated grinding or clenching of your teeth can damage your teeth or jaw.
Tips for dealing with teeth grinding
If you child grinds or clenches their teeth during sleep, think about whether something may be making them feel stressed and how you can relieve it. Plan a quiet time of at least half an hour before bedtime, no matter how old your child is.
If the grinding happens a lot, talk to your child's doctor or dentist. It might help to use a special mouthguard for sleep.
Read more about teeth grinding.
Resources and support
If you are concerned that your child might have a sleep disorder, talk to a doctor or call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 or via video call to speak to a maternal child health nurse. Hours are from 7 am to midnight (AEST/EADT), 7 days a week (including public holidays).
The Sleep Health Foundation has resources for helping parents of young children and teenagers with sleep problems.
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Last reviewed: July 2023