Does your child have a sleep disorder or just trouble sleeping?

Jill Reed Siroty
June 23, 2015

Many children have trouble with sleep at some point — difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, being tired or even falling asleep during the day. So how do you know if your child is having typical, and usually temporary, childhood sleep issues or is suffering from a sleep disorder?

The first thing physicians look at is what's called "sleep hygiene," which is all the different things that you and your child do to ensure a good night's sleep. (You can find more sleep hygiene tips from the National Sleep Foundation).

"Generally speaking, if we've made some changes to the sleep routine and a child is still not feeling rested when they wake up in the morning, they may need to see a specialist," says Lori Rockmore, Psy.D., a psychologist with Specialized Psychological Services in Short Hills, New Jersey, who works with anxious children and often treats children and adolescents who have trouble sleeping. While it's rare for children to receive a diagnosis of a sleep disorder, it is something to consider if your child is often sleepy.

Does your child have good sleep hygiene?

Here are some things to consider if your child is having sleep difficulties:

  • What's your child's bedtime routine? Are you reading a story together or is your child watching TV or playing video games before bedtime, which can make it difficult to fall asleep?
  • How long is it taking your child to nod off? Most children will fall asleep within about 30 minutes. If it takes longer, your child may no longer need to be napping or may need a more relaxing bedtime routine.
  • Is the room dark? Are electronics put away?
  • Is your child consuming caffeine during the day?
  • Do you have to wake your kids for school or do they wake up on their own? If you consistently need to wake them in the morning, they may not be getting enough sleep.

What are some sleep disorders in children and their symptoms?

Obstructive Sleep Apnea
According to Milrod, this is the most common sleep disorder diagnosed in children. Symptoms include snoring, long pauses between breathing, sweatiness at night and lots of tossing and turning.

Restless Leg Syndrome
In this uncommon disorder, children may need to stretch or move their legs to relieve discomfort, making it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep and, as a result, causing sleepiness during the day.

This excessive sleepiness problem may show itself in a child who struggles to stay awake during the day or who falls asleep at surprising times or in unexpected locations.

Periodic Limb Movement Disorder
Repetitive involuntary muscle movements, often in the legs and feet, keep your child from getting enough rest, leading to daytime sleepiness.

Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder
This can be a problem for older children, in which they can comfortably stay awake until well past midnight, but then they sleep until after noon.

When should you see a doctor?

If you see consistent sleep troubles — if your child has trouble waking in the morning or never seems rested enough or falls asleep during the day — start with your child's pediatrician, who may refer you to a sleep medicine specialist.

Dr. Lewis Milrod, M.D., a pediatric neurologist and medical director of pediatric sleep medicine at St. Peter's University Hospital in New Jersey, explains that parents need to pay attention not only to sleep habits, but to what's happening when the child is awake. If sleep problems are affecting performance the next day, he notes, it may be time to seek a doctor's advice.

Keep in mind that "sleeping like a baby" isn't just for babies. Pay attention to a few sleep details and check in with an expert if necessary, and you can rest assured that your child, no matter what age, will be on the way to a good night's sleep in no time.

Jill Reed Siroty is a freelance writer who writes on a variety of health care and parenting topics. She is mom to two boys and author of a lifestyle blog.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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