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The Most Common Sleep Disorders in Children

Sleep disorders in children are basically the same ones you'll find in adults: sleep disturbances for the sleeper or the people around him/her (in this case the parents). It can be incredibly stressful for both the parents and the child when abnormal sleep behavior, insomnia and disrupted patterns keep them up night after night, leaving the whole family on edge and desperate for a good night’s sleep.

It can be difficult to define sleep disorders in children, as they vary with age, i.e. waking up frequently during the night is quite normal as an infant, while it is not at 2 years old. Another reason they can be difficult to diagnose is because the parents’ concept of what constitutes a natural disturbance and what is considered a problem can also vary dramatically.

Waking up during the night is a common occasional occurrence during childhood, but 80% of children sleep pretty much through the night from when they are 6 months old and 90% when they are 1 year old. On average one out of three children will continue to wake up frequently and need care from their parents until they are 4 years old.

Infants and sleeping patterns

Infants have a sleeping pattern that is completely different from an adult’s. Children of less than 6 months old spend 50% of their sleeping time in the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of a sleep cycle.

Infants fall asleep through an initial active REM phase, contrary to adults that normally do not enter this phase until 90 minutes into a cycle. Since the REM phase is more frequent when infants sleep, their sleep cycles are much shorter.

sleep disorders in childrenFrom 6 months and older, a child’s sleeping pattern is the same as an adult’s. After an initial slumber phase of approximately 10-20 minutes the child moves from phase 1, a non-REM phase, to phases 2 and 3. The child may return to phase 1 and the cycle will continue.

After one or two cycles with non-REM sleep, the child will enter the REM sleep phase after 60-90 minutes. The first third of the night is ordinarily spent in deep sleep (non-REM) phases. For the last half of the night a child will mainly be in phase 2 of sleep and the REM phase.


Infants need the same amount of sleep during the day as they do at night. Sleeping at night eventually becomes more natural and turns into a continuous, undisturbed period of sleep. Most children do not need a nap during the day from 4 years old. The need for sleep in children decreases gradually, so young adults have the same need for sleep as adults.



  • A group of sleep disorders most commonly found in children
  • The disorder is episodic and reflects immaturity of the central nervous system, therefore they are more frequent in children, who will normally grow out of the condition.
  • Often children with this condition have a family history of parasomnia.
  • Attacks are predictable in the sleep cycle and characterized by retrograde amnesia.
  • Sleep terrors: not to be confused with nightmares. Sleep terror usually occurs during the first hours of sleep: the non-REM phases. This sleep disorder in children is characterized by feelings of dread and terror during the night.
  • Sleepwalking
  • Nocturnal enuresis (bedwetting)

Timeline: Sleep Disorders in Children

2-12 months: Restless and disturbed sleep

sleep disorders in childrenThe infant’s relations start to develop and the discovery of new things matters more and more and this can have a large effect on sleep. Head-banging and body-rocking are very common in infants. It is believed to be hereditary, but in most cases benign. In rare cases this type of sleep behavior may be caused by disease. 

Often waking up during the night in children this age is caused by sleeping in the bed with parents, breast feeding, normal development, temper, mother-child relations, anxious parents and/or postnatal depression in the mother. 

1-3 years old: Resistance to sleep

Very few parents have never experienced their toddler screaming and thrashing, completely unwilling to go to bed. This is normal after a day with new impressions and exciting experiences. Common sleep disorders in children this age are waking up at night and head-banging. 

3-5 years old: Sleep walking and nightmares

In general this is the age of sleep disorders in children. It is common that children have trouble going to sleep, sleep walk, wake up during the night, resist sleep, bang their head, have nightmares and sleep terrors, snore, and have trouble breathing. 

Sleep terrors, which are caused by waking up in the first phase of deep sleep, and nightmares, are especially common. Up to 4 out of 10 children at this age also sleep walk. Most of sleep disturbances that children experience at this age will go away as they get older.

6-12 years: Sleep disorders become less frequent 

The most common sleep disorders in children at this age are trouble falling asleep, waking up at night, and unwillingness to go to bed. This does not mean that the sleep disorders from earlier years, such as sleepwalking and nightmares, cannot continue for some years (or in rare cases, for life). Bruxism (grinding the teeth) can also occur in children from 6-12 years old. 

At this age, however, the most common sleep issues that cause tiredness during the day are with the amount and quality of sleep, and not a sleep disorder as such.

12-18 years: Many sleep too little

sleep disorders in childrenToo little sleep in teenagers can have many unfortunate effects such as decreasing levels of growth hormones, mood swings, lowered ability to learn, weakened immune system, and issues with their metabolism.

The most common reasons for the lack of sleep are bad sleep hygiene, issues falling asleep, snoring and breathing issues. 

Furthermore more specific, adult sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea and narcolepsy, can start to occur in the teenage years. 

Other conditions can also be responsible for teenagers not getting all the sleep that their bodies need. These can be social activities, TV, computer, mobile phones, work, school and many others.

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