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Sleep Problems in Children

Many children have sleep problems, including:

  • Frequent awakening during the night
  • Talking during sleep
  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Waking up crying
  • Feeling sleepy during the day
  • Having nightmares
  • Bedwetting
  • teeth grinding and clenching
  • Waking early

Childhood sleep problems often are related to irregular sleep habits or to anxiety about going to bed and falling asleep. Persistent sleep problems may also be symptoms of emotional difficulties. "Separation anxiety" is a developmental landmark for young children. For all young children, bedtime is a time of separation. Some children will do all they can to prevent separation at bedtime.

To minimize common sleep problems, a parent should develop consistent bedtime, and regular bedtime and sleep routines for children. Parents often find that feeding and rocking help an infant get to sleep. As the child leaves infancy, however, parents should encourage the child to sleep without feeding and rocking, in other words, to fall asleep on his or her own. Otherwise, the child will have a hard time going to sleep alone.

Nightmares are relatively common during childhood. The child remembers nightmares, which usually involve major threats to the child's well-being. Nightmares, which begin at a variety of ages, affect girls more often than boys. For some children, nightmares are serious, frequent and interfere with restful sleep.

Sleep terrors, sleepwalking, and sleeptalking constitute a relatively rare group of sleep disorders called "parasomnias."

Sleep terrors are different from nightmares. The child with sleep terrors will scream uncontrollably and appear to be awake, but is confused and can't communicate. Sleep terrors usually begin between ages 4 and 12.

Children who sleepwalk may appear to be awake as they move around, but are actually asleep and in danger of hurting themselves. Sleepwalking usually begins between ages 6 and 12. Both sleep terrors and sleepwalking run in families and affect boys more often than girls.
Most often, children with parasomnias have single or occasional episodes of these disorders. However, when episodes occur several times a night, or nightly for weeks at a time, or interfere with the child's daytime behavior, treatment by a child and adolescent psychiatrist may be necessary. A range of treatments is available.

Sleep-wake reversal may occur in some teens and may cause problems with daily life. Sleep also can be disturbed by mood disorders, substance abuse, ADHD and anxiety. Fortunately, as they mature, children usually get over common sleep problems as well as the more serious disorders (parasomnias). Parents with ongoing concerns, however, should contact their pediatrician or directly seek consultation with a child and adolescent psychiatrist.

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