Diagnosing Sleep Disorders in Children

Sleep experts at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone are experienced in identifying sleep problems in children, which affect up to 30 percent of children. There are many different types and causes of sleep disorders, including poor sleep habits, behavioral problems, and neurological conditions.

Chronic sleep problems can affect your child’s ability to function at home and perform well in school, and they can lead to anxiety and depression. Adolescents with chronic sleep problems face the additional risk of injury from driving while drowsy.

Tools for Diagnosing Childhood Sleep Disorders

Our sleep experts use a variety of tools to make an accurate diagnosis of your child’s sleep problem, beginning with a complete medical history that includes information about activities, school, life at home, and medications that may be affecting your child’s sleep. Our doctors also use specialized diagnostic tools to gain better insight into the cause of some sleep problems.

Sleep Diary

Our doctors may ask you or your child to fill out a daily sleep diary for a week or two. This diary provides a snapshot of your child’s sleep habits, including the time and duration of nighttime sleep and naps. In the sleep diary, you can also note how much exercise your child has had or which substances, such as caffeinated sodas, he or she has consumed that could interfere with sleep.

Sleepiness Scale

This short questionnaire, which is completed before the first appointment, asks you or your child to estimate the likelihood that he or she may doze or sleep during a variety of daytime situations, such as during school or when watching television. Your child’s doctor then scores the test during the appointment.

A high sleepiness score—which suggests greater daytime drowsiness—indicates that your child may have a condition that is disrupting sleep.

Sleep Study

Sometimes, your child’s medical history and the information collected from the sleep diary and sleepiness scale suggest an underlying medical condition. To make an accurate diagnosis, our doctors may recommend a sleep study, or polysomnogram. This is an overnight study that takes place in NYU Langone’s sleep labs.

During the study, specialists use tape or glue to attach sensors to your child’s head, face, legs, and body. These allow them to monitor your child’s brainwaves, leg movements, eye movements, snoring, and oxygen and carbon dioxide levels during sleep. This painless process is usually done about an hour before your child’s regular bedtime.

To help your child feel comfortable falling asleep in the sleep lab, our doctors may encourage you or another family member to stay with the child in a separate bed or couch. Most children fall asleep shortly after the sensors have been attached.

After your child falls asleep, the sensors provide information about the patterns and quality of your child’s sleep. They can also detect breathing problems. An audio and video recording is made while your child sleeps that allows our specialists to look for snoring, uncontrolled body movements, and sleepwalking.

If a breathing problem is detected during the sleep study, our doctors can refer you and your child to an ear, nose, and throat specialist at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital to evaluate the cause.

Multiple Sleep Latency Test

A multiple sleep latency test, also performed in the sleep lab, is used to diagnose narcolepsy, a neurological condition that causes frequent episodes of daytime dozing. During this daytime test, your child is asked to nap for up to 20 minutes every two hours for as long as 12 hours. The sleep lab technologists measure how long it takes your child to fall asleep. Most children fall asleep within about 10 to 20 minutes, but people with narcolepsy often fall asleep in much less time.

Blood Test

Uncontrolled leg movements discovered during a sleep study could be a symptom of restless leg syndrome. Because low iron levels make this condition worse, the doctor may recommend that your child have a blood test to measure these levels.