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.
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:
Non-REM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep, considered “quiet sleep” (5- to 20-minute intervals)
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
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
When your child goes to bed, make sure everything is done:
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.
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
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:
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:
treatment of iron deficiency
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
Over time, nights of missed sleep (whether they're caused by a sleep disorder or simply not scheduling enough time for the necessary ZZZs) can build into a sleep deficit (or sleep debt). Teens with a sleep deficit can't concentrate, study, or work effectively. They also can have emotional problems, like depression.
What Happens During Sleep?
As we sleep, our brains pass through five stages of sleep. Together, stages 1, 2, 3, 4, and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep make up a sleep cycle. One complete sleep cycle lasts about 90 to 100 minutes. So during an average night's sleep, a person will experience about four or five cycles of sleep.
Stages 1 and 2 are periods of light sleep from which a person can wake up easily:
During these stages, eye movements slow down and eventually stop, heart and breathing rates slow down, and body temperature decreases.
Stages 3 and 4 are deep sleep stages:
It's harder to wake someone up during these stages, and when awakened, a person often will feel groggy and confused for a few minutes.
Stages 3 and 4 are the most refreshing of the sleep stages — this is the type of sleep we crave when we're very tired. They're also the sleep stages during which the body releases hormones that contribute to growth and development.
The final stage of the sleep cycle is called REM sleep because of the rapid eye movements that occur:
During REM sleep, other physical changes take place — breathing is rapid, the heart beats faster, and the limb muscles don't move. This is the stage of sleep when we have our most vivid dreams.
What Prevents an Early Bedtime?
Research shows that teens need about 9 hours of sleep a night. So, a teen who needs to wake up for school at 6 a.m. would have to go to bed at 9 p.m. to reach the 9-hour mark. Studies have found that many teens have trouble falling asleep that early, though. It's not because they don't want to sleep. It's because their brains naturally work on later schedules and aren't ready for bed.
During adolescence, the body's circadian rhythm (an internal biological clock) is reset, telling a teen to fall asleep later at night and wake up later in the morning. This change in the circadian rhythm seems to be due to the fact that the brain hormone melatonin is produced later at night in teens than it is for kids and adults. So, teenagers have a harder time falling asleep.
Sometimes this delay in the sleep-wake cycle is so severe that it affects a teen's daily activities. In those cases it's called delayed sleep phase syndrome, also known as "night owl" syndrome. And if your sleep-deprived teen brings mobile devices into bed, surfing or texting late into the night, the light exposure could also disrupt circadian rhythm and make it harder to sleep.
Changes in the body clock aren't the only reason teens lose sleep, though. Read on to learn about some of the biggest causes of sleep deprivation.
Lots of us have insomnia (trouble falling or staying asleep). The most common cause of insomnia is stress. But all sorts of things can lead to insomnia, including physical discomfort (the stuffy nose of a cold or the pain of a headache, for example), emotional troubles (like family problems or relationship difficulties), and even an uncomfortable sleeping environment (a room that's too hot, cold, bright, or noisy).
It's common for teenagers to have insomnia from time to time. But if insomnia lasts for a month or longer with no relief, doctors call it chronic. Chronic insomnia can be caused by a number of different problems, including medical conditions, mental-health problems, medication side effects, or substance abuse. Many teens with chronic insomnia can be helped by a doctor, therapist, or other counselor.
For some teens, worrying about the insomnia can make it worse. A brief period of insomnia can build into something longer lasting when a teen becomes anxious about not sleeping or worried about feeling tired the next day. Doctors call this psychophysiologic insomnia.
PLMD and RLS
Teens with periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD) or restless legs syndrome (RLS) find their sleep is disrupted by leg (or, less commonly, arm) movements, leaving them tired or irritable from lack of sleep.
In the case of PLMD, these movements are involuntary twitches or jerks: They're called involuntary because the person isn't consciously controlling them and is often unaware of the movement.
Teens with RLS actually feel physical sensations in their limbs, such as tingling, itching, cramping, or burning. The only way they can relieve these feelings is by moving their legs or arms to get rid of the discomfort.
Doctors can treat PLMD and RLS. For some teens, treating an iron deficiency can make the problem go away; others might need to take other types of medication.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
This sleep disorder causes a person to stop breathing temporarily during sleep. One common cause of obstructive sleep apnea is enlarged tonsils or adenoids (tissues located in the passage that connects the nose and throat). Being overweight or obese also can put someone at risk for it.
Teens with obstructive sleep apnea might snore, have difficulty breathing, and even sweat heavily during sleep. Because it disrupts sleep, they may feel extremely sleepy or irritable during the day.
Treatment can help teens with sleep apnea, so any who have symptoms (such as loud snoring or excessive daytime sleepiness) should be checked by a doctor.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is another common cause of sleep loss. With GERD, stomach acids move backward up into the esophagus, producing the uncomfortable, burning sensation known as heartburn.
GERD symptoms can be worse when a person is lying down. Even if someone doesn't notice the feelings of heartburn during sleep, the discomfort it causes can still interfere with the sleep cycle. Some people find they are better able to sleep by elevating their head on a few pillows or by taking medications.
If your teen suffers from GERD, it could be interfering with his or her sleep. Talk to a doctor about treatment options or lifestyle changes, such as changes in diet.
Most teens have nightmares on occasion. But frequent nightmares can disrupt sleep patterns by waking someone during the night.
The most common triggers for more frequent nightmares are emotional, such as stress or anxiety. Other things that can trigger them include certain medicines, and consuming drugs or alcohol. Sleep deprivation (getting too little sleep) also can lead to nightmares.
If nightmares are interfering with your teen's sleep, consider having him or her talk to a doctor, therapist, or other counselor.
Teens with narcolepsy are often very sleepy during the day and have sleep "attacks" that may make them suddenly fall asleep, lose muscle control, or see vivid dreamlike images while dozing off or waking up. Nighttime sleep may be disrupted, with frequent awakenings throughout the night.
Narcolepsy can be disturbing because teens fall asleep without warning, making it hazardous to do things like ride a bike or drive. A teens's school, work, or social life can be affected by the unusual sleep patterns.
Narcolepsy is not commonly diagnosed in teens, but many cases go unrecognized. People usually begin to have symptoms between the ages of 10 and 25, but might not be properly diagnosed until 10-15 years later. Doctors usually treat narcolepsy with medicines and lifestyle changes.
It's rare for teens to walk in their sleep; most sleepwalkers are kids. Sleepwalking, which may run in families, tends to happen most often when a person is sick, has a fever, is not getting enough sleep, or is feeling stress.
Because most sleepwalkers don't sleepwalk often, it's usually not a serious problem. Sleepwalkers tend to go back to bed on their own and don't usually remember sleepwalking. (Sleepwalking often happens during the deeper sleep that takes place during stages 3 and 4 of the sleep cycle.)
Sometimes, though, a sleepwalker will need help moving around obstacles and getting back to bed. It's also true that waking sleepwalkers can startle them (but it isn't harmful), so try to guide a sleepwalker back to bed gently.
How to Help
If your teen seems to be getting enough rest at night but is still feeling tired during the day, it's a good idea to visit the doctor. Excessive tiredness can be caused by all sorts of health problems, not just difficulties with sleep.
If a sleep problem is suspected, the doctor will evaluate your teen's overall health and sleep habits. In addition to doing a physical examination, the doctor will take a medical history by asking about any concerns and symptoms your teen has, and about his or her past health, your family's health, and any medications your teen is taking. The doctor may also do tests to find out whether any conditions — such as obstructive sleep apnea — might be interfering with sleep.
Treatment for sleep problems can vary. Some can be treated with medicines, while others can be helped with special techniques like light therapy (where someone sits in front of a lightbox for a certain amount of time each day) or other practices that can help reset a person's body clock.
Doctors often encourage teens who have sleep problems to make lifestyle changes — like turning off the cellphone or computer before bed, cutting down on caffeine, or avoiding violent video games or movies at night — to promote good sleeping habits.