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

Sleep Problems in Teens

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. Teens with a sleep deficit are unable to concentrate, study, and work effectively. They can also experience 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 easily be awakened. 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 more difficult to awaken someone during these stages, and when awakened, a person will often feel groggy and disoriented for a few minutes. Stages 3 and 4 are the most refreshing of the sleep stages — it is this type of sleep that we crave when we are very tired.

The final stage of the sleep cycle is known as REM sleep because of the rapid eye movements that occur during this stage. During REM sleep, other physical changes take place — breathing becomes rapid, the heart beats faster, and the limb muscles don't move. This is the stage of sleep when a person has the most vivid dreams.

What Prevents an Early Bedtime?

Research shows that teens need 81/2 to 91/2 hours of sleep a night. So, a teen who wakes 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, making it harder for teens to fall asleep.

Sometimes this delay in the sleep–wake cycle is so severe that it affects a person's daily functioning. In those cases it's called delayed sleep phase syndrome.

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.

Insomnia

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, 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 consider 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. Teens with chronic insomnia can often get help for their condition from a doctor, therapist, or other counselor.

For some, insomnia can be made worse by worrying about the insomnia itself. A brief period of insomnia can build into something longer lasting when someone becomes anxious about not sleeping or worried about feeling tired the next day. Doctors call this psychophysiologic insomnia.

Periodic Limb Movement Disorder and Restless Legs Syndrome

Teens with these conditions find their sleep is disrupted by leg (or, less frequently, arm) movements, leaving them tired or irritable from lack of sleep.

In the case of periodic limb movement disorder (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 restless legs syndrome (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 with medications. For some teens, treating an iron deficiency can make the conditions go away.

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 lead someone to develop obstructive sleep apnea.

Teens with obstructive sleep apnea might snore, have difficulty breathing, and even sweat heavily during sleep. Because it disrupts sleep, someone with sleep apnea may feel extremely sleepy or irritable during the day.

Treatment is available for teens with sleep apnea. Those who show signs of the condition, such as loud snoring or excessive daytime sleepiness, should be evaluated by a doctor.

Reflux

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is another common culprit 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 lying in an elevated position 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.

Nightmares

Most teens have nightmares on occasion. But frequent nightmares can disrupt sleep patterns by waking someone during the night.

Some things can trigger more frequent nightmares, including certain medications, drugs, or alcohol. Ironically, sleep deprivation also can be a cause. The most common triggers for more frequent nightmares are emotional, such as stress or anxiety.

If nightmares are interfering with your teen's sleep, consider consulting a doctor, therapist, or other counselor.

Narcolepsy

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 schooling, work, or social life can be affected by the unusual sleep patterns.

Narcolepsy is not commonly diagnosed in teens, although 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 medications and lifestyle changes.

Sleepwalking

It's rare for teens to walk in their sleep; most sleepwalkers are children. Sleepwalking may run in families. It 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 not usually 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.

Different sleep problems are treated differently. Some can be treated with medications, whereas others can be helped by special techniques such as 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.

When teens have sleep problems, doctors often encourage them to make lifestyle changes — like turning off the cell phone or computer before bed, cutting down on caffeine, or avoiding violent video games or movies at night — to promote good sleeping habits.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: May 2011