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
Most parents have comforted their child after the occasional nightmare. But if your child has ever experienced what's known as a night terror (or sleep terror), his or her fear was likely inconsolable, no matter what you tried.
A night terror is a sleep disruption that seems similar to a nightmare, but with a far more dramatic presentation. Though night terrors can be alarming for parents who witness them, they're not usually cause for concern or a sign of a deeper medical issue.
During a typical night, sleep occurs in several stages. Each is associated with particular brain activity, and it's during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage that most dreaming occurs.
Night terrors happen during deep non-REM sleep. Unlike nightmares (which occur during REM sleep), a night terror is not technically a dream, but more like a sudden reaction of fear that happens during the transition from one sleep phase to another.
Night terrors usually occur about 2 or 3 hours after a child falls asleep, when sleep transitions from the deepest stage of non-REM sleep to lighter REM sleep, a stage where dreams occur. Usually this transition is a smooth one. But rarely, a child becomes agitated and frightened — and that fear reaction is a night terror.
During a night terror, a child might suddenly sit upright in bed and shout out or scream in distress. The child's breathing and heartbeat might be faster, he or she might sweat, thrash around, and act upset and scared. After a few minutes, or sometimes longer, a child simply calms down and returns to sleep.
Unlike nightmares, which kids often remember, kids won't have any memory of a night terror the next day because they were in deep sleep when it happened — and there are no mental images to recall.
What Causes Night Terrors?
Night terrors are caused by over-arousal of the central nervous system (CNS) during sleep. This may happen because the CNS (which regulates sleep and waking brain activity) is still maturing. Some kids may inherit a tendency for this over-arousal — about 80% who have night terrors have a family member who also experienced them or sleepwalking (a similar type of sleep disturbance).
Night terrors have been noted in kids who are:
overtired or ill, stressed, or fatigued
taking a new medication
sleeping in a new environment or away from home
Night terrors are relatively rare — they happen in only 3–6% of kids, while almost every child will have a nightmare occasionally. Night terrors usually occur between the ages of 4 and 12, but have been reported in kids as young as 18 months. They seem to be a little more common among boys.
A child might have a single night terror or several before they cease altogether. Most of the time, night terrors simply disappear on their own as the nervous system matures.
Coping With Night Terrors
Night terrors can be very upsetting for parents, who might feel helpless at not being able to comfort or soothe their child. The best way to handle a night terror is to wait it out patiently and make sure the child doesn't get hurt by thrashing around. Kids usually will settle down and return to sleep on their own in a few minutes.
It's best not to try to wake kids during a night terror. Attempts usually don't work, and kids who do wake are likely to be disoriented and confused, and may take longer to settle down and go back to sleep.
There's no treatment for night terrors, but you can help prevent them. Try to:
reduce your child's stress
establish and stick to a bedtime routine that's simple and relaxing
make sure your child gets enough rest
prevent your child from becoming overtired by staying up too late
Understanding night terrors can reduce your worry — and help you get a good night's sleep yourself. But if night terrors happen repeatedly, talk to your doctor about whether a referral to a sleep specialist is needed.
Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: September 26, 2016