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Sleep Disorders in Children

The National Sleep Foundation’s (NSF) 2004 Sleep in America poll found that 69 percent of children experience sleep problems at least a few nights a week, according to their parents/caregivers.  Although evidence of a sleep problem is not a definite sign of a sleep disorder (some may be normal at certain ages), consult your child’s physician if you notice the regular appearance of any of the following in your child:

     • Loud snoring, noisy breathing, or interrupted breathing on a regular basis while sleeping.
     • Breathing through the mouth while sleeping.
     • Appearing confused or looking terrified when awakened during the night.
     • Frequent sleepwalking.
     • Rocking to sleep or head banging when falling asleep.
     • Complaining of “leg pains”, “growing” pains, or restless legs when trying to sleep.
     • Noticeable difficulty with falling asleep, staying asleep, or restless sleep.
     • Poor sleep leading to daytime problems or irritability.
     • Waking up un-refreshed, difficulty waking up on time, or feeling sleepy during the day.

A lack of sleep can affect a child’s mental and physical development. Here is a brief description of some common sleep problems:

Insomnia occurs when a child complains of difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, and/or early morning awakenings. Insomnia can be short-term due to stress, pain, or a medical or psychiatric condition. It can become long-term if the underlying cause is not addressed or healthy sleep practices are not followed. Treating underlying conditions, developing good sleep practices and maintaining a consistent sleep schedule can help a child fall asleep and stay asleep.

Nightmares are frightening dreams that occur during REM sleep and awaken a child. They usually occur in the later part of the night. Most children have at least one nightmare during childhood; three percent of preschool and school aged children experience frequent nightmares, according to NSF’s 2004 Sleep in America poll. They can be upsetting and a child will need reassurance when they occur. Nightmares can result from a scary event, stress, a difficult time or change in a child’s routine. Use of a nightlight or security object is often helpful.

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) is a movement disorder that includes uncomfortable and unpleasant feelings (e.g. a tingly or itchy feeling) in the legs causing an overwhelming urge to move. These feelings make it difficult to fall asleep. RLS can be treated with changes in bedtime routines, increased iron, and possibly medications.

Sleeptalking occurs when the child talks, laughs or cries out in his/her sleep. The child is unaware and has no memory of the incident the next day. There is usually no need to treat sleeptalking.

Sleepwalking is experienced usually between ages three and seven. Sleepwalking usually occurs an hour or two after a child falls asleep and may last five to 20 minutes. Because sleep deprivation often contributes to sleepwalking, getting a child to bed earlier can be helpful.

Sleep terrors occur early in the night. A child will suddenly arouse from sleep and may scream out and be distressed, although he or she is not awake or aware during a sleep terror. Not getting enough sleep, an irregular sleep schedule, stress, or sleeping in a new environment may cause sleep terrors. Increasing sleep time will help reduce the likelihood of a sleep terror.

Snoring occurs when there is a partial blockage in the airway that causes a noise due to the vibration of the back of the throat. About l0-12 percent of normal children habitually snore. Snoring can be caused by nasal congestion, enlarged adenoids or tonsils that block the airway. Some children who snore may have sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea – when snoring is loud and the child is having difficulty breathing, it may be a sign of a more serious disorder called obstructive sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep caused by blocked airway passages, resulting in repeated arousals from sleep. Sleep apnea has been associated with daytime sleepiness, academic problems, and hyperactivity. Sleep apnea can be treated.

Children ages 5 to 12 need 10 to 11 hours of sleep each night.

Children who get enough sleep can:

   • Pay attention better in school
   • Be creative and think of new ideas
   • Fight sickness
   • Be in a good mood
   • Get along with friends and family
   • Solve problems better

Without enough sleep, children can:

   • Forget what they’ve learned
   • Have trouble making good choices
   • Be grumpy and in a bad mood
   • Have trouble playing games and sports
   • Be less patient with others
   • Have trouble listening to parents and teachers
   • Some information provided by the National Sleep Foundation.