Common Sleep Disorders in Children and How to Cure Them

Experts explain how to deal with the most common youth sleep disturbances, so your child can finally get the rest she so badly needs.

children's sleep disorders; young girl sleeping in big white bed

It’s a no-brainer that sleep is crucial for your children’s development, and when they’re well-rested, they’re ready for the day ahead. “Sleep is the power source that keeps your mind alert and calm,” explains Dr. Marc Weissbluth, a pediatrician and author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. “Sleeping well increases brainpower, just as weight lifting builds stronger muscles because sleeping well increases your attention span and allows you to be physically relaxed and mentally alert at the same time.”

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But what happens when your kids aren’t sleeping soundly? “Sleep problems not only disrupt a child’s nights, they disrupt his days too by making him less mentally alert, more inattentive, unable to concentrate, and easily distracted. They also make him more physically impulsive, hyperactive, and lazy.” Here, we look at the most common sleep problems and offer real solutions.


The Culprit: Night Terrors

If your child wakes up screaming, crying, or thrashing and appears anxious and agitated, he is probably having a night terror. The episodes occur within two hours of falling asleep, can last for 5-15 minutes, and your child won’t remember it. Night terrors are seen in children ages 4-12 and occur more frequently during disruptive or erratic sleep schedules, or when a child has a fever. 

What to do: Night terrors can be worrisome but your child will eventually outgrow them. For now, move your child’s bedtime earlier by 30 minutes; the extra sleep should do the trick.


The Culprit: Nightmares

Nightmares occur when children have frightening dreams and then wake up scared and crying. Unlike night terrors, nightmares start during the toddler years, occur in the latter part of the night, and children may have trouble falling back to sleep. Children may also remember these dreams. Although nightmares are not associated with any underlying psychological or emotional problems, they may be a result of daytime fears surfacing at night.

What to do: It’s OK to wake up your children if you notice they’re having nightmares. Consoling them is the best remedy. TV should be avoided before bedtime. If nightmares become frequent, consult your physician.


The Culprit: Sleepwalking

According to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2004 Sleep in America Poll, only 2 percent of school-aged children walk in their sleep at least a few nights per week. Sleepwalking can occur anywhere between ages 3-12 and is seen more in children who wet the bed or have sleep apnea, or when a parent has a history of sleepwalking. The episodes usually start 2-3 hours after falling asleep and can last up to 30 minutes. Children are unaware of their surroundings and may also eat, get dressed, or open doors.

What to do: Make sure your child isn’t in any danger of tripping, falling, or walking outdoors. You can try to wake your child, but it’s more likely that she will do so on her own, and without any recollection of the episode.  


The Culprit: Bed-Wetting

Twenty-one percent of preschool-aged children and 7 percent of school-aged children wet the bed once a week or more, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Bed-wetting is more common among boys and tends to be inherited. Persistent bed-wetting usually happens because the child’s bladder is not fully developed, and sometimes when children don’t get enough sleep or have allergies that obstruct the airways. 

What to do: Bed-wetting usually ends by puberty if not sooner. Try to wake your child before he typically wets the bed, and remind him to go to the bathroom. Limit drinks before bedtime, and remember to praise him when he doesn’t have an incident. You may also consider buying a bed-wetting alarm, a device that is attached to a child’s pajamas or underwear and emits an alarm when it senses wetness, eventually modifying your child’s behavior through conditioning. Consult your pediatrician if there are other health issues.


The Culprit: Bruxism (Teeth Grinding)

According to a study published in the Journal of Dentistry for Children in 2005, 38 percent of parents said their children grind their teeth during slumber. Family history, drooling, sleep talking, psychological disorders, and even open bedroom doors were found to be associated with bruxism. Colds, ear infections, allergies, and airway obstructions can also cause children to grind
their teeth.

What to do: Although bruxism tends to disappear as children get older, if it’s severe or you suspect other health problems, consult your pediatrician. 


The Culprit: Allergies, Snoring, and Sleep Apnea

Children lose quality sleep every night from obstructed airways caused by allergies (both environmental and food-related). Snoring can be caused by enlarged adenoids and tonsils, as well as a relaxed neck or airway obstruction by the tongue. About 10 percent or more of children snore on most nights, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Snoring often results in morning headaches, bed-wetting, weight problems, mood and personality changes, drowsiness, poor attention span and performance in school, and hyperactivity. In addition to snoring, some children are affected by sleep apnea, a disorder characterized by stops in breathing for short intervals throughout the night; they may awaken frequently or cry out. 

What to do: For allergies, dietary and environmental changes may help. Your pediatrician may recommend decongestants, antihistamines, nasal sprays, or alternative therapies. If snoring persists or gets worse, or you suspect apnea or other underlying health problems, consult your pediatrician. Surgery may be recommended if there are enlarged adenoids and tonsils. For apnea, sleep studies may be prescribed, and lifestyle changes or a continuous positive airway pressure mask (CPAP) can help.