There are many things which may affect the quality of a child’s sleep, and sleep disorders affect a significant proportion of the child and adolescent population. It’s important as a parent to be aware of the various conditions and events which may be interrupting or affecting how well your child can sleep, as sleep disorders if unidentified can lead to exhaustion, behavioural problems, difficulty learning, frustration and accidents on the road.
For very young children and infants, there is a natural variation in their sleep cycles. Newborns require the longest period of sleep however this is fragmented throughout the day. Over time the duration a child can sleep at night gets longer, and the number of times they sleep in the day decreases.
An article by American Family Physician summarises the normal changes in total sleep duration as children age, their relationship to napping throughout the day and common sleep disorders . There are big changes in these cycles, for example a baby aged 0 to 2 months will sleep on average 16 to 18 hours within one 24-hour cycle, whereas 3 to 5 year olds tend to sleep between 11-15 hours in total.
Knowing the classic trends of children’s sleeping patterns will assist you as a parent to identify anything which may indicate that your child is not sleeping in line with their development.
Common Sleep Disorders in Children:
OBSTRUCTIVE SLEEP APNOEA (1-5% of children)
This condition generally starts when children are between 2 and 8 years old, and there are a number of signs you may notice if your child has this sleep disorder, including:
- Unusual sleep positions
- Their chest contracts during inhaling and expands during exhaling (paradoxical breathing)
- Involuntary urinating at night
- Sweating at night
- Headaches upon waking
- Poor concentration in the day
- Feeling sleepy in the day
- Enlarged tonsils
This is a group of disorders including sleep paralysis, sleep walking, night terrors and sleep talking which can occur going to sleep, during the night or upon waking up.
If a child is sleep walking they may find it difficult to wake up whilst they are in this state, and it is likely they will not remember anything that takes place during the episode.
Nightmares affect a large number of children, and this can increase their heart rate and induce sweating during the night. Sleep terrors are a more extreme phenomenon, where children may have intensely fearful and vivid episodes during the night which can lead to sleep walking, and it is common that they do not remember it taking place upon waking up the next day.
BEHAVIOURAL INSOMNIA OF CHILDHOOD
A general difficulty in falling asleep or maintaining sleep throughout the night. This may occur due to distractions which keep the child awake, or through poor sleeping habits.
DELAYED SLEEP PHASE DISORDER
This is more common in adolescents where their main period of sleep occurs outside of normal hours, i.e. they sleep more in the day than at night.
RESTLESS LEGS SYNDROME
Some people experience leg twitching or an urge to move their legs when they sleep, which can come on in the evening. This restlessness often affects sleep quality and is more common in those with attention deficit or hyperactivity disorders.