Prather Pediatric and Allergy Center - Ask Doctor Brent

Printer Friendly Version

Title: Sleep Disorders in Children

Category: Child Care


Sleep disorders in children can range from difficulty getting an infant to sleep to night terrors, sleep walking, sleep apnea, and in extreme cases, narcolepsy.

The first and most common sleep problem experienced by many parents is difficulty in getting their infant to sleep. The infant may want to stay in the parents bed all night and may constantly cry and demand being picked up, rocked, fed or played with. A few important points in breaking these habits:

1. Make sure the child has his own space to sleep (preferably their own room and own bed).

2. Have a good consistent bedtime routine which is followed most nights. This might include singing, cuddling, rocking, patting and prayers for older children.

3. The more familiar the surroundings for the child the better. In other words, the child should be in their own bed with their own familiar stuffed toy and fall asleep in this familiar surrounding each night.

The average child will wake up five to six times every night and return to sleep if they are in their own familiar surroundings. Children will learn to fall back to sleep during these five to six waking periods if they feel secure because of the above mentioned things and if they have frequent patting, touching and reassurance. The worst thing to do is to pick up the child out of the bed or feed him or give him a bottle. This reinforces the child getting familiar with waking up and demanding attention. It also increases wetting and more waking. Another sleep disorder in children is nightmares. This occurs during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, or the first stage of sleep in which the child is actually dreaming. This condition is easily recognized in older children and sometimes confusing in young infants. It is best handled by reassuring the child and lovingly sending them back to bed after reassurance. It is best not to over- react too anxiously. On the other hand, do not totally discount the child's fear. Nightmares are something all children will have from time to time. If provided a loving supportive environment they can easily handle them and they do not usually become a serious problem.

The next sleep problem we see occasionally in children is a night terror. This occurs during the fourth stage of sleep just prior to awakening. There are four stages of sleep which cycle all night long. Just before going from the fourth stage back to awakening, during that transition stage is when night terrors occur. This is not a dream; it does not occur during REM sleep. It is also the time when some patients have trouble with night walking. The best treatment for night terrors or night walking is simply to reassure the child, place them back in the bed and protect them from any physical harm should they be walking around. Night terrors are not remembered by the child and cause no long term problems.