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

Sleepwalking

About Sleepwalking

Hours after bedtime, do you find your little one wandering the hall looking dazed and confused? If you have a sleepwalking child, you're not alone. It can be unnerving to see, but sleepwalking is very common in kids and most sleepwalkers only do so occasionally and outgrow it by the teen years. Still, some simple steps can keep your young sleepwalker safe while traipsing about.

Despite its name, sleepwalking (also called somnambulism) actually involves more than just walking. Sleepwalking behaviors can range from harmless (sitting up), to potentially dangerous (wandering outside), to just inappropriate (kids may even open a closet door and pee inside). No matter what kids do during sleepwalking episodes, though, it's unlikely that they'll remember ever having done it!

As we sleep, our brains pass through five stages of sleep — stages 1, 2, 3, 4, and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Together, these stages make up a sleep cycle. One complete sleep cycle lasts about 90 to 100 minutes. So a person experiences about four or five sleep cycles during an average night's sleep.

Sleepwalking most often occurs during the deeper sleep of stages 3 and 4. During these stages, it's more difficult to wake someone up, and when awakened, a person may feel groggy and disoriented for a few minutes.

Kids tend to sleepwalk within an hour or two of falling asleep and may walk around for anywhere from a few seconds to 30 minutes.

Causes of Sleepwalking

Sleepwalking is far more common in kids than in adults, as most sleepwalkers outgrow it by the early teen years. It may run in families, so if you or your partner are or were sleepwalkers, your child may be too.

Other factors that may bring on a sleepwalking episode include:

  • lack of sleep or fatigue
  • irregular sleep schedules
  • illness or fever
  • certain medications
  • stress (sleepwalking is rarely caused by an underlying medical, emotional, or psychological problem)

Behaviors During Sleepwalking

Of course, getting out of bed and walking around while still sleeping is the most obvious sleepwalking symptom. But young sleepwalkers may also:

  • sleeptalk
  • be hard to wake up
  • seem dazed
  • be clumsy
  • not respond when spoken to
  • sit up in bed and go through repeated motions, such as rubbing their eyes or fussing with their pajamas

Also, sleepwalkers' eyes are open, but they don't see the same way they do when they're awake and they often think they're in different rooms of the house or different places altogether.

Sometimes, these other conditions may accompany sleepwalking:

  • sleep apnea (brief pauses in breathing while sleeping)
  • bedwetting (enuresis)
  • night terrors

Is Sleepwalking Harmful?

Sleepwalking itself is not harmful. However, sleepwalking episodes can be hazardous since sleepwalking kids aren't awake and may not realize what they're doing, such as walking down stairs or opening windows.

Sleepwalking is not usually a sign that something is emotionally or psychologically wrong with a child. And it doesn't cause any emotional harm. Sleepwalkers probably won't even remember the nighttime stroll.

How to Keep a Sleepwalker Safe

Although sleepwalking isn't dangerous by itself, it's important to take precautions so that your sleepwalking child is less likely to fall down, run into something, walk out the front door, or drive (if your teen is a sleepwalker).

To help keep your sleepwalker out of harm's way:

  • Try not to wake a sleepwalker because this might scare your child. Instead, gently guide him or her back to bed.
  • Lock the windows and doors, not just in your child's bedroom but throughout your home, in case your young sleepwalker decides to wander. You may consider extra locks or child safety locks on doors. Keys should be kept out of reach for kids who are old enough to drive.
  • To prevent falls, don't let your sleepwalker sleep in a bunk bed.
  • Remove sharp or breakable things from around your child's bed.
  • Keep dangerous objects out of reach.
  • Remove obstacles from your child's room and throughout your home to prevent a stumble. Especially eliminate clutter on the floor (i.e., in your child's bedroom or playroom).
  • Install safety gates outside your child's room and/or at the top of any stairs.

Other Ways to Help a Sleepwalker

Unless the episodes are very regular, cause your child to be sleepy during the day, or involve dangerous behaviors, there's usually no need to treat sleepwalking. But if the sleepwalking is frequent, causing problems, or your child hasn't outgrown it by the early teen years, talk to your doctor. Also talk to your doctor if you're concerned that something else could be going on, like reflux or trouble breathing.

For kids who sleepwalk often, doctors may recommend a treatment called scheduled awakening. This disrupts the sleep cycle enough to help stop sleepwalking. In rare cases, a doctor may prescribe medication to aid sleep.

Other ways to help minimize sleepwalking episodes:

  • Have your child relax at bedtime by listening to soft music or relaxation tapes.
  • Establish a regular sleep and nap schedule and stick to it — both nighttime and wake-up time.
  • Make your child's bedtime earlier. This can improve excessive sleepiness.
  • Don't let kids drink a lot in the evening and be sure they go to the bathroom before going to bed. (A full bladder can contribute to sleepwalking.)
  • Avoid caffeine near bedtime.
  • Make sure your child's bedroom is quiet, cozy, and conducive to sleeping. Keep noise to a minimum while kids are trying to sleep (at bedtime and naptime).

The next time you encounter your nighttime wanderer, don't panic. Simply steer your child back to the safety and comfort of his or her bed.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: April 2013