Types of Sleep Disorders in Children

At NYU Langone, sleep specialists can identify and treat a variety of sleep disorders that may occur during infancy, early childhood, and adolescence. Some types of sleep disorders are related to particular behaviors, whereas others are caused by neurological or other medical conditions. 

Childhood Insomnia

Childhood insomnia occurs when a child has difficulty falling and staying asleep at least three days a week. Refusal to go to bed or difficulty falling asleep without the help of a parent or object, such as a favorite toy or blanket, are common types of childhood insomnia.

Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome

Delayed sleep phase syndrome, also known as “sleepy teen” syndrome, is an exaggerated form of the normal shift in circadian rhythm, or biological clock, that occurs during late childhood or early adolescence. 

Children with this disorder are unable to fall or stay asleep until two or more hours past their normal bedtime, making it difficult to wake up in the morning in time for school or other activities. Children with delayed sleep phase syndrome also tend to sleep much later than normal on the weekends.

Hypersomnia

A child or adolescent with hypersomnia has excessive daytime sleepiness. One condition that can result in hypersomnia is narcolepsy, a neurological condition that causes frequent daytime dozing, a temporary loss of muscle control, and hallucinations that occur as a child falls asleep or wakes up. 

Other conditions that disrupt sleep, such as delayed sleep phase syndrome or obstructive sleep apnea, can cause hypersomnia. Excessive daytime sleepiness can also be a sign of a concussion, epilepsy, or other medical problems. Careful diagnosis is critical to identifying the best treatment for hypersomnia in children. 

Parasomnias

Parasomnias are undesirable physical events or experiences that are common in younger children while they are falling asleep; during deep, or rapid eye movement (REM), sleep; or during arousal from nonrapid eye movement sleep. 

Common parasomnias—such as sleepwalking; awakening in a confused state; and sleep terrors, in which a child suddenly becomes frightened in the middle of the night—typically occur during arousal from non-REM sleep. During REM sleep, children can have vivid nightmares. Some children are temporarily unable to move the body, head, or limbs during the period between sleep and wakefulness, and others have hallucinations as they begin to wake up from sleep.

Movement Disorders

Movement disorders, such as restless legs syndrome and periodic limb movement disorder, are neurological conditions that cause unpleasant sensations in the legs and an overwhelming urge to move them. Symptoms tend to be worse at night and can interfere with your child’s sleep. These two movement disorders frequently occur together.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea interferes with a child’s breathing during sleep. Children with the condition snore or gasp for air and are awakened frequently throughout the night. Obstructive sleep apnea is common in children who have enlarged tonsils or adenoids or in those who have structural problems of the face or head, such as cleft lip and palate. Sleep apnea also can occur in children with neuromuscular disorders, such as muscular dystrophy, which weaken the muscles involved in breathing.

Behavioral and Mental Health Disorders

Children with behavioral disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or mental health problems—such as anxiety and mood disorders—often have insomnia. The medications prescribed for these conditions can also interfere with sleep.