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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
Brief pauses in breathing during sleep are normal. But when breathing stops often or for longer periods, it's called sleep apnea.
When someone has sleep apnea, oxygen levels in the body may fall and sleep can be disrupted. You might think that only older people have sleep apnea, but kids and teens can develop it, too.
About Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea happens when a person stops breathing during sleep ("apnea" comes from a Greek word meaning "without wind"). It is usually caused by something obstructing, or blocking, the upper airway. This is known as obstructive sleep apnea(OSA).
OSA is a common, serious condition that can make kids miss out on healthy, restful sleep. If left untreated, obstructive sleep apnea can lead to learning, behavior, growth, and heart problems. In very rare cases, it can even be life threatening.
Less commonly, sleep apnea can happen when someone doesn't get enough oxygen during sleep because the brain doesn't send signals to the muscles that control breathing. This is called central sleep apnea. Head injuries and other conditions that affect the brain increase the risk of developing this type of apnea, which mostly affects older adults.
When we sleep, our muscles relax. This includes the muscles in the back of the throat that help keep the airway open. In obstructive sleep apnea, these muscles can relax too much and collapse the airway, making it hard to breathe.
This is especially true if someone has enlarged tonsils or adenoids (germ-fighting tissues at the back of the nasal cavity), which can block the airway during sleep. In fact, enlarged tonsils and adenoids are the most common cause of OSA in kids.
defects in the structures of the mouth, jaw, or throat that can narrow the airway
a large neck (17 inches or more in circumference for men; 16 inches for women)
a large tongue, which can fall back and block the airway during sleep
When breathing stops, oxygen levels in the body drop. This usually triggers the brain to briefly wake us up so that the airway reopens. Most of the time, this process happens quickly and we go right back to sleep without knowing we woke up. But with sleep apnea, this pattern repeats itself all night. So people who have it don't reach a deeper, more restful level of sleep.
Symptoms of OSA in kids include:
snoring, often associated with pauses, snorts, or gasps
heavy breathing while sleeping
very restless sleep and sleeping in unusual positions
bedwetting (especially if a child previously stayed dry at night)
daytime sleepiness or behavioral problems
Because OSA makes it hard to get a good night's sleep, kids might have a hard time waking in the morning, be tired throughout the day, and have attention or other behavior problems. As a result, sleep apnea can hurt school performance. Teachers and others may think a child has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or learning difficulties.
If your child snores regularly, is a restless sleeper, is very sleepy during the day, or has other signs of sleep apnea, talk to your doctor. Your doctor might refer you to a sleep specialist or recommend a sleep study.
A sleep study (also called a polysomnogram) lets doctors check for OSA and record a variety of body functions while a child sleeps. Sleep studies also can help doctors diagnose central sleep apnea and other sleep disorders.
In the study, sensors are placed at a few spots on the child's body with a mild adhesive or tape. The sensors are wired to a computer to provide information while the child sleeps. Sleep studies are painless and risk-free, but patients usually need to spend the night in a hospital or sleep center.
During a sleep study, doctors monitor:
blood oxygen level
snoring and other noises
body movements and sleep positions
Treating Sleep Apnea
If enlarged tonsils or adenoids are thought to be causing the apnea, the doctor will refer your child to an ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT). The ENT might decide that an operation called an adenotonsillectomy is needed to remove the tonsils and adenoids. This often is an effective treatment for OSA.
If tonsils and adenoids are not the cause of OSA or if symptoms of OSA remain after adenotonsillectomy, a doctor may recommend continuous positive airway pressure(CPAP) therapy. In CPAP therapy, a person wears a mask that covers the nose and mouth during sleep. The mask is connected to a machine that continuously pumps air into it to open the airways.
When excess weight is a factor in OSA, it's important to work with a doctor on diet changes, exercise, and other safe weight-loss methods. In mild cases of OSA, doctors may monitor a child for a period of time to see if symptoms improve before deciding on treatment.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: September 26, 2016