Sleep Disorders in Children

The common sleep disorders with children are:

  •  insomnia
  •  sleep rocking
  •  sleepwalking
  •  night terrors
  •  sleep apnoea
  •  hypersomnia
  •  teeth grinding


Most children go to sleep within 20 minutes of being quiet in bed.

But some children regularly have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or not going back to sleep if they wake. If it is a regular problem, they may have insomnia.

Insomnia in children is not usually a serious problem. However it can cause difficulties for the child if they are tired and irritable the next day, and for the parents, it can cause problems if children are getting up a lot at night. Usually, insomnia can be addressed by following an improved sleep routine for two weeks.

A good sleep routine includes a predictable quiet time of at least half an hour before bedtime – a bath, reading time and a regular bedtime. When an improved sleep routine does not help, try stopping all caffeine (found in cola drinks) and give your child a small glass of warm milk 30 minutes before bedtime. Sleep medicines should not be used without a doctor’s advice in children.

Occasionally, insomnia can be a symptom of depression, an anxiety disorder or hyperactivity. If your child has insomnia a lot, see your child’s doctor.

Sleep rocking

Some children rock their bodies during part of the night. Most rock from side to side, but some rock forward from their knees to their elbows. It is most common up to the age of three or four. Usually sleep rocking is not serious and will stop on its own.

However in severe cases a child may bang their head or other body parts against the bed or wall. If this occurs, you may need to protect your child, for example by padding the wall. If your child sleep rocks, talk to your child’s doctor about it.


Sleepwalking can be fairly common in children, anywhere from two years of age up to their early teens. There is no obvious reason why sleepwalking happens and can run in the family.

Some children have only mild episodes and may only sit up in bed, where as some have been known to get out of bed, walk up and down stairs or even try to leave the house. Other children may try to eat, drink, or use the toilet while asleep.

A sleepwalker usually:

  • has a blank, staring expression
  • is very difficult to wake up
  • does not seem to hear or notice anyone
  • can’t remember the episode the next day
  • may be confused when they first wake up.

There is no obvious reason why sleepwalking happens, but it can be more likely if your child is overtired, has a high temperature or is feeling stressed or anxious.

Night terrors

Children with night terrors usually wake within the first few hours of going to sleep and scream or call out. The terror may last for several minutes, or sometimes up to half an hour or more. Usually the child’s eyes are wide open, but are staring and not focused. It can be very scary for parents, but harmless for the child and are a normal part of sleep.

If your child has night terrors:

  • don’t wake them during the terror
  • be calm and stay with your child, and wait for it to pass.

A child with sleep apnoea usually snores and stops breathing for a few seconds when sleeping. This signals the brain to wake them up. The sequence of not breathing followed by briefly waking up may happen many times during the night. While children seldom remember waking up, they may be tired or cranky during the daytime. In children a common cause is enlarged tonsils or adenoids (lymph nodes located in the throat behind the nose). Sleep apnoea is much more common in adults than children.

If you think that your child has sleep apnoea, talk with your child’s doctor.


Hypersomnia is a condition in which your child sleeps far more than is normal for their age. Your child is always tired, even after a good night’s sleep. A young child with hypersomnia may often be whiny and irritable. Other symptoms besides the need for a lot of sleep may be lack of concentration or poor memory.

If you think your child has hypersomnia, set a clear routine of bedtime and nap times for several days. If things don’t change, see your child’s doctor.

Teeth grinding

Some children grind or clench their teeth while asleep. This is sometimes called ‘bruxism’. Children who do this may also grind or clench their teeth when angry, upset or anxious.

If it happens once in a while, that’s not a problem. If it happens almost every night, it can be. Repeated grinding or clenching of the teeth can damage the teeth or the jaw.

If you child grinds or clenches their teeth during sleep, try reducing their stress. Plan a quiet time of at least half an hour before bedtime no matter how old the child is.

If the grinding happens often or is violent, talk with your child’s doctor and dentist. Special tooth guards may need to be used for nap and night-time sleep.