Sleep Medicine

Patient and family education is important to us. Here you can learn more about sleep and healthy sleep habits, and view trusted insights from KidsHealth.org, the No. 1 most viewed health site for children, created by the experts at Nemours. We've also provided information from the most-respected non-profit organizations.

Healthy Sleep

All children need a good night’s sleep. It’s not only a time for rest, but sleep gives your child’s brain a chance to sort and store information from their day. When kids don’t get enough sleep or quality sleep, it can affect how they feel, act and do in school. Our pediatric sleep medicine specialists are here to get to the bottom of your child’s sleep problems and set your child on the path to a good night’s rest.

Natural Sleep Cycles: Five Stages of Sleep

Natural brain cycles are responsible for sleep, which is defined by 2 states:
  1. Non-REM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep, considered “quiet sleep” (5- to 20-minute intervals)
  2. REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, considered “active sleep” (60-70 minutes)

Normally, sleep occurs in stages that cycle several times throughout the night.

 
Stage 1: Non-REM Sleep

This is the transition from wakefulness to sleep. During this period the brain reduces activity and polysomnography (sleep study) shows high amplitude theta waves (slow brain waves).

 
Stage 2: Non-REM Sleep

At this time, the body’s temperature begins to decrease and the heart rate begins to slow to prepare for sleep. Bursts of rapid rhythmic brain waves (called sleep spindles) begin to appear.

 
Stages 3 & 4: Non-REM Sleep

These stages mark the transition between light and deep sleep where delta (very slow) brain waves begin to emerge in stage 3 and continue in intensity. Sleep walking and bedwetting often occur at the end of stage 4.

 
Stage 5: REM Sleep

After about 90 minutes of non-REM sleep, brain activity increases as the eyes begin moving rapidly and dreaming begins. REM is referred to as paradoxical sleep because muscles become more relaxed as the brain’s other systems become more active.


Good Sleep Habits

 
Independent Sleep

Consider the following recommendations to help your child develop good habits for getting to sleep on his or her own.

  • Keep your child’s room neat and clean — responsibility for this task will vary depending on your child’s age and abilities.
  • Put a nightlight or small light within your child’s reach.
  • A quiet fan or humidifier may allow for some “white noise” to filter out the noise coming from the rest of the house.
  • Place a few of your child’s favorite items around the bed so it becomes sort of a "mini-home."
  • Have a bedside table or shelf stocked with your child’s favorite books.
  • Give your child plenty of notice that bedtime is approaching. A predictable, consistent bedtime routine helps kids wind down toward sleep.
  • Set aside time to do something special with your child before bed. Avoid any activities that will excite your child. Let your child know your special time together will end at bedtime.
  • Once you finish playing or reading a story, tell your child goodnight and leave the room. If your child comes out, take your child back to bed and leave again.
 
Helping Your Preschool Child Develop Good Sleep Habits

Helping kids get enough sleep involves creating soothing and consistent bedtime routines.

The goal is for your child to learn to:
  • fall asleep on his or her own
  • not rely on your presence for this to happen
  • be able to go back to sleep during the night
  • go to bed at the same time every night — let your child know 30 minutes ahead of that time to get ready
Other ways to help your child develop better sleep habits:
  • make sure your child goes to the bathroom, washes up, and brushes his or her teeth
  • read a book with your child
  • make sure your child has a cup of water, a nightlight or anything else your child may need
  • remind your child to stay quiet and in bed
  • say goodnight
When your child goes to bed, make sure everything is done:
  • teeth brushed
  • said goodnight to everyone
  • had a drink of water
  • used the toilet

After your child is in bed, keep the TV and the rest of the home fairly quiet. Your child can awaken easily in the first hour of sleep.

If your child awakens, the goal is have the same conditions present that were there when your child fell asleep — that means you’re not present when your child falls asleep. Follow these recommendations for naptime too. You may be asked to track your child’s sleep in a sleep diary so you can measure progress made.

 
Sleep Tips for Teens
  • Try to stay on a schedule — go to bed and get up at roughly the same time each day, even on weekends. Don't sleep more than 2-3 hours later than usual.
  • Get into bright light as soon as possible in the morning, but avoid it in the evening.
  • Try not to nap during the day; or nap only for 20-30 minutes.
  • Avoid caffeine in the afternoon.
  • Don't exercise within 3 hours before going to bed.
  • Keep the temperature in your room comfortable.
  • Keep the room quiet and dark when sleeping.
  • Use the bedroom only for sleep, not for fun or watching TV. This will signal the body that when you are in your room, it's time to sleep.
  • Leave time to unwind before bed. Avoid stimulating activities like TV or lively music 30 minutes prior to bedtime.
  • Do not go to bed until you are drowsy. Trying to “make yourself fall asleep” will only make you wake up more.
  • Do not go to bed too hungry or too full — a light snack such as pretzels, crackers or popcorn just before bed may help make you drowsy.
  • Use a relaxation exercise, such as progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery, just before bed.
  • If you are unable to fall asleep within 30 minutes, get out of bed and do something quietly in another room until sleepy.

Common Sleep Conditions

 
Bruxism (Teeth Grinding)

Bruxism can be a serious condition. Kids who grind their teeth are more likely to do it in the first half of the night, when they are less likely to be dreaming.

Teeth Grinding in Babies and Toddlers

Nearly half of all babies grind their teeth. It usually begins at about 10 months old, after the two top front teeth and two bottom front teeth come in. Generally, it’s nothing to worry about and usually goes away on its own without any damage to permanent teeth. After baby teeth are lost, if your child is still grinding, consult with your child’s dentist.


Teeth Grinding in Children and Teens

Children and teens also grind their teeth. Children with disabilities are more likely to grind their teeth, especially children with cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities. Teeth grinding can cause tooth pain, jaw pain, and headaches. Also, it can wear down teeth.


Treating Bruxism

Nothing needs to be done if a child is grinding teeth once in a while and if it’s not too intense. It is usually nothing to worry about, as long as there is no damage to the teeth and no other symptoms.

 
Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome

If your child or teen remains awake at least two hours past their usual bedtime because they are unable to fall asleep, it may signal Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS).

Often, it’s hard for someone with DSPS to wake up in the morning. If allowed to sleep until the late morning or early afternoon, your child feels rested and can function well. Many teens with DSPS describe themselves as being at their best in the evening and at night. They tend to “catch up” on their sleep during weekends.


Causes and Symptoms of Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome

DSPS usually starts during the teen years and affects about 7% (1 out of 15) of teens. While the cause is unknown, sometime after puberty, most teens start staying up later at night and sleeping later in the morning.

Some symptoms may include:
  • Trouble falling asleep at a usual bedtime: Most teens with DSPS fall asleep late at night or in the early morning.
  • Difficulty with awakening in the morning: Since teens fall deeply asleep so late, most have difficulty getting up and ready on time in the morning.
  • Daytime sleepiness: Often teens who fall asleep late at night and awaken early for school suffer from feeling tired and sleepy during
    the day.
  • Other symptoms during the day: Sleepiness during the day and lack of energy may be mistakenly interpreted as depression. In addition, these teens may suffer from poor attention and motivation, sometimes diagnosed as attention deficit disorder.

Diagnosing and Treating DSPS

Keeping a sleep diary for a week gives enough information about when your child goes to sleep and wakes up to make a diagnosis.

Treatment includes resetting your child’s internal clock to establish the habit of being sleepy at a normal bedtime. If your teen isn’t motivated, it’s difficult to change the pattern.

To get back into a more regular schedule:
  • Don’t smoke and avoid caffeine or other stimulating drugs.
  • Limit daytime sleeping to one 15- to 20-minute nap, if any.
  • Go to bed earlier.
  • Gradually move back bedtime by 15 minutes intervals, that is, if your teen is going to bed at midnight, set bedtime at 15 minutes earlier at 11:45 p.m., for one or two nights, then 11:30 p.m. for one or two nights. Continue 15 minutes earlier every two nights, until bedtime is at 10 p.m.
  • Go to bed later: It’s easier for the body to get used to a later bedtime than an earlier one. Using a technique called “phase delay,” bedtime is delayed by 2 to 3 hours each night. For example, if a teenager usually falls asleep at 2 a.m. bedtime is delayed until 4 a.m. one night, 6 a.m. the next night.
  • Melatonin: There is limited evidence to support use of melatonin an hour prior to bedtime and this therapy should be used in consultation with your child’s doctor. Once the desired bedtime is reached, your teen must stick with their schedule every night for several months. Even one night of late night studying or socializing can return the internal clock to the delayed state.
 
Head Banging and Body Rocking

Babies often fall asleep when they are rocked back and forth by adults. Sometimes, babies and children rock themselves to sleep. When these rhythmic movements become intense, it results in head banging and body rocking, and known as “rhythmic movement disorders.” Your child may do this mostly when falling asleep (at naptime or bedtime) and then settle down once asleep.

Should You Worry About Your Child’s Head Banging or Body Rocking?

For most children, this behavior is not a cause for concern and most stop by age 4; however, you may have to watch your child a little closer. Children with other issues such as developmental delay, autism, or blindness may rock or bang their heads more forcefully and hurt themselves; consult your doctor.

Follow these tips:
  • It’s unlikely your child will hurt himself. There is no need to put extra bumpers in the crib or place pillows around it.
  • Be careful not to reinforce the head banging — try not to go to your child every time — you may be accidentally encouraging this behavior.
  • Move the crib or bed — move the crib or bed away from the wall if the noise is disturbing the rest of the family. If your child is in a bed, put guardrails on all sides.
  • Head banging and rocking can loosen the screws and bolts in your child’s crib or bed — tighten these fasteners on a regular basis.
 
Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (Twitching and Jerking at Night)

Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD) is a repetitive, sometimes intense movement of the limbs — usually the legs — during sleep that typically lasts a few seconds.

Most children and teens are unaware of the movements that feel like a tingling, crawling, creeping pain and look like brief muscle twitches or jerking movements. They tend to occur in groups, and last from a few minutes to a few hours, and can cause your child to awake during the night, which may lead to daytime sleepiness.

Children and teens with PLMD may also experience Restless Leg Syndrome, a related disorder that can happen at night or during times of rest, or on long car rides.


Causes of Periodic Limb Movement Disorder

PLMD may be related to low iron levels in the blood (anemia) or due to chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and kidney disease. However, for most children with PLMD, the cause is not known.

Symptoms may include:
  • leg movements
  • restless sleep
  • sleep disruption
  • daytime sleepiness
  • behavior and academic problems

Diagnosing and Treating Periodic Limb Movement Disorder

Your child’s doctor may order an overnight sleep study or polysomnography, in which you and your child will spend the night in a sleep lab at a hospital or clinic. While your child is sleeping, a sleep technologist will look for movements or wakings.

Treatments may include:
  • avoiding caffeine
  • treatment of iron deficiency
  • medications
Other recommendations may include:
  • keeping your child's room neat, clean and clutter-free
  • using a nightlight or small light within his or her reach which may help your child feel more secure during the night
  • using a quiet fan or humidifier
  • placing favorite items around your child’s bed
  • having a bedside table or shelf stocked with his or her books
  • giving your child notice that bedtime is approaching
  • avoiding activities that may excite your child at bedtime
  • leaving your child’s room after saying goodnight

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)

Reducing the Risk

A lack of answers is part of what makes sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) so frightening. SIDS is the leading cause of death among infants 1 month to 1 year old, and claims the lives of about 2,500 each year in the United States. It remains unpredictable despite years of research.

Even so, the risk of SIDS can be greatly reduced. First and foremost, infants younger than 1 year old should be placed on their backs to sleep — never face-down on their stomachs.

Searching for Answers

As the name implies, SIDS is the sudden and unexplained death of an infant who is younger than 1 year old. It's a frightening prospect because it can strike without warning, usually in seemingly healthy babies. Most SIDS deaths are associated with sleep (hence the common reference to "crib death") and infants who die of SIDS show no signs of suffering.

While most conditions or diseases usually are diagnosed by the presence of specific symptoms, most SIDS diagnoses come only after all other possible causes of death have been ruled out through a review of the infant's medical history, sleeping environment, and autopsy. This review helps distinguish true SIDS deaths from those resulting from accidents, abuse, and previously undiagnosed conditions, such as cardiac or metabolic disorders.

When considering which babies could be most at risk, no single risk factor is likely to be sufficient to cause a SIDS death. Rather, several risk factors combined may contribute to cause an at-risk infant to die of SIDS.

Most deaths due to SIDS occur between 2 and 4 months of age, and incidence increases during cold weather. African-American infants are twice as likely and Native American infants are about three times more likely to die of SIDS than caucasian infants. More boys than girls fall victim to SIDS.

Other potential risk factors include:

  • smoking, drinking, or drug use during pregnancy
  • poor prenatal care
  • prematurity or low birth weight
  • mothers younger than 20
  • tobacco smoke exposure following birth
  • overheating from excessive sleepwear and bedding
  • stomach sleeping

Stomach Sleeping

Foremost among these risk factors is stomach sleeping. Numerous studies have found a higher incidence of SIDS among babies placed on their stomachs to sleep than among those sleeping on their backs or sides. Some researchers have hypothesized that stomach sleeping puts pressure on a child's jaw, therefore narrowing the airway and hampering breathing.

Another theory is that stomach sleeping can increase an infant's risk of "rebreathing" his or her own exhaled air, particularly if the infant is sleeping on a soft mattress or with bedding, stuffed toys, or a pillow near the face. In that scenario, the soft surface could create a small enclosure around the baby's mouth and trap exhaled air. As the baby breathes exhaled air, the oxygen level in the body drops and carbon dioxide accumulates. Eventually, this lack of oxygen could contribute to SIDS.

Also, infants who succumb to SIDS may have an abnormality in the arcuate nucleus, a part of the brain that may help control breathing and awakening during sleep. If a baby is breathing stale air and not getting enough oxygen, the brain usually triggers the baby to wake up and cry. That movement changes the breathing and heart rate, making up for the lack of oxygen. But a problem with the arcuate nucleus could deprive the baby of this involuntary reaction and put him or her at greater risk for SIDS.

Going "Back to Sleep"

The striking evidence that stomach sleeping might contribute to the incidence of SIDS led the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to recommend in its 1992 Back to Sleep campaign that all healthy infants younger than 1 year of age be put to sleep on their backs (also known as the supine position).

Since the AAP's recommendation, the rate of SIDS has dropped by more than 50%. Still, SIDS remains the leading cause of death in young infants, so it's important to keep reminding parents about the necessity of back sleeping.

Many parents fear that babies put to sleep on their backs could choke on spit-up or vomit. According to the AAP, however, there is no increased risk of choking for healthy infants who sleep on their backs. (For infants with chronic gastroesophageal reflux disease [GERD] or certain upper airway malformations, sleeping on the stomach may be the better option. The AAP urges parents to consult with their child's doctor in these cases to determine the best sleeping position for the baby.)

Placing infants on their sides to sleep is not a good idea, either, as there's a risk that infants will roll over onto their bellies while they sleep.

Some parents also may be concerned about positional plagiocephaly, a condition in which babies develop a flat spot on the back of their heads from spending too much time lying on their backs. Since the Back to Sleep campaign, this condition has become quite common — but it is usually easily treatable by changing your baby's position frequently and allowing for more "tummy time" while he or she is awake.

Of course, once babies can roll over consistently — usually around 4 to 7 months — they may choose not to stay on their backs all night long. At this point, it's fine to let babies pick a sleep position on their own.

Tips for Reducing the Risk of SIDS

In addition to placing healthy infants on their backs to sleep, the AAP suggests these measures to help reduce the risk of SIDS:

  • Place your baby on a firm mattress to sleep, never on a pillow, waterbed, sheepskin, couch, chair, or other soft surface. To prevent rebreathing, do not put blankets, comforters, stuffed toys, or pillows near the baby.
  • Do not use bumper pads in cribs. Bumper pads can be a potential risk of suffocation or strangulation.
  • Make sure your baby receives all recommended immunizations. Studies have shown that immunization can reduce the risk of SIDS by 50%.
  • Make sure your baby does not get too warm while sleeping. Keep the room at a temperature that feels comfortable for an adult in a short-sleeve shirt. Some researchers suggest that a baby who gets too warm could go into a deeper sleep, making it more difficult to awaken.
  • Do not smoke, drink, or use drugs while pregnant and do not expose your baby to secondhand smoke. Infants of mothers who smoked during pregnancy are three times more likely to die of SIDS than those whose mothers were smoke-free; exposure to secondhand smoke doubles a baby's risk of SIDS. Researchers speculate that smoking might affect the central nervous system, starting prenatally and continuing after birth, which could place the baby at increased risk.
  • Receive early and regular prenatal care.
  • Make sure your baby has regular well-baby checkups.
  • Breastfeed, if possible. There is some evidence that breastfeeding may help decrease the incidence of SIDS. The reason for this is not clear, though researchers think that breast milk may help protect babies from infections that increase the risk of SIDS.
  • If your baby has GERD, be sure to follow your doctor's guidelines on feeding and sleep positions.
  • Put your baby to sleep with a pacifier during the first year of life. If your baby rejects the pacifier, don't force it. Pacifiers have been linked with lower risk of SIDS. If you're breastfeeding, try to wait until after the baby is 1 month old so that breastfeeding can be established.
  • While infants can be brought into a parent's bed for nursing or comforting, parents should return them to their cribs or bassinets when they're ready to sleep. It's a good idea to keep the cribs and bassinets in the room where parents' sleep. This has been linked with a lower risk of SIDS.

For parents and families who have experienced a SIDS death, many groups, including the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Alliance, can provide grief counseling, support, and referrals.

And growing public awareness of SIDS and precautions to prevent it should leave fewer parents searching for answers in the future.

Reviewed by: Floyd R. Livingston Jr., MD
Date reviewed: October 2011