What You Need to Know About Pediatric Sleep Disorders

To some people’s surprise, children experience sleep disorders just like adults. In fact, around fifty percent of children will experience some form of sleep problem. The earlier the discovery of a sleep disorder, the better the health and behavioral outcomes will be. Here’s everything you need to know about the most common sleep disorders that are seen in children.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Prevalence: OSA occurs in about 1 to 5 percent of children1. It’s usually seen between the ages of two and eight years old, but it’s possible for it to appear at any age. It’s seen equally between males and females.

Cause: The general causes of OSA are obesity and a narrow airway. In children, it’s often seen that those with OSA have large tonsils or adenoids.

Symptoms: The symptoms you should watch out for vary. However, the most common symptoms are snoring, daytime headaches, excessive daytime sleepiness, moodiness or poor emotional regulation, difficulty concentrating or unusual sleeping positions.

Treatment and Prognosis:

Because the most common cause of OSA in children is enlarged tonsils or adenoids, it’s usually treatable after a tonsillectomy. If that is not the cause, CPAP therapy is recommended.


Prevalence: Parasomnias are sleepwalking or talking in children. It occurs in one out of five children. These types of events occur to about half of all children and are disruptive to a good night’s sleep.

Cause: Parasomnias are typically more common in children than adults. There is not necessarily a behavioral cause, as they are usually genetic, from a brain disorder or due to sleep apnea.

Symptoms: It’s the most noticeable of sleep disorders, as parasomnias show abnormal behavior during sleep such as sleepwalking, talking or nightmares.

Treatment and Prognosis: The best way to treat and heal from this is to improve sleep habits. Establish a nighttime routine and go to bed at the same time each night. Be sure to turn off all electronics two hours before bed.

Behavioral Insomnia

Prevalence: Behavioral insomnia occurs when a child has extreme difficulty falling or staying asleep. It occurs in around 25 percent of children2. It’s most common in children ages one to five.

Cause: There could be a few causes of behavioral insomnia. One is a nighttime routine. If a child is used to a very specific set of circumstances to fall asleep, they may have difficulty doing so if not adhered to. Another known cause is called a limit setting. This is when a child challenges their caregiver about bedtime so much that it causes a variation of bedtimes throughout a week. This disrupts a child’s sleep.

Treatment and Prognosis:

To treat this, the best thing parents can do is establish consistent nighttime routines. They should involve setting expectations and consistent feeding, naps and bedtime routines. This is good advice for children as well as adults.

Movement Disorder

Prevalence:  Although most often thought of as a disorder for adults. It can also occur in children. It manifests as frequent leg movements or cramps. This impedes falling and staying asleep. Although many don’t even know it’s occurring.

Cause: The cause is not completely known. However, some of the suspected culprits are low iron levels, caffeine or medicinal side effects.

Symptoms: Movement disorder signs are more obvious to notice from an outsider. You’ll see repetitive leg movements, frequent awakenings and drowsiness during the day. Unfortunately, it may also demonstrate in forms such as irritability and hyperactivity.

Treatment and Prognosis:  An overnight sleep study should be performed to determine if there is a movement disorder. After confirming the disorder, medication may be prescribed in addition to advising abstaining from caffeine. They will also suggest an iron supplement be added to the regular rotation.


Prevalence:  This often manifests as narcolepsy, but it is excessive daytime sleepiness. It is extremely rare, in that less than 1 percent of the population has been diagnosed.

Cause: There is no certain cause, but it is suspected that secondary hypersomnia is due to kidney problems or infections. It could also be due to the way the brain functions awake and sleep times.

Symptoms: This will be shown as low energy, loss of appetite, irritability and anxiety. 

Treatment and Prognosis:  It can often be diagnosed through a sleep test. Once the diagnosis is confirmed, treatment is seen through medication and lifestyle changes. They will suggest a healthy lifestyle with a consistent nighttime schedule.

Now that you know what to look for in your children when they’re sleeping, you can rest easy and feel comfortable with their health. If you’re concerned, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor and reach out to Advanced Sleep Medicine Solutions for further testing. We’re here to help!

  1. KEVIN A. CARTER, DO, Martin Army Community Hospital, Fort Benning, Georgia. NATHANAEL E. HATHAWAY, MD, SHAPE Healthcare Facility, Mons, Belgium. CHRISTINE F. LETTIERI, MD, Uniformed Services University of the Health Science. Am Fam Physician. 2014 Mar 1;89(5):368-377.
  2. Clinical management of behavioral insomnia of childhood. Jennifer Vriend, Penny Corkum. Psychol Res Behav Manag. 2011; 4: 69–79. Published online 2011 Jun 24.


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