Sleeping Problems in Children

Disturbed sleep at night, which may lead to a disruption of family life

  • More common under the age of 5
  • A stressful home environment is a risk factor
  • Gender and genetics are not significant factors

Many children sleep through the night by the age of 12 months, but about 1 in 3 children has frequent wakeful nights until the age of 5 or even later. Sleeping problems rarely cause ill health but may disrupt family life and can affect school performance in older children.

Disrupted sleep in children is usually temporary and may occur only because of a lack of or change to daily routine. Sleeping problems may also be related to illnesses, such as ear infections or those causing a cough, or to anxiety, such as that caused by family quarrels.

What are the types?

Sleeping problems in children take various forms. In toddlers, one of the most common problems is an inability to settle down and go to sleep after being left alone at bedtime. Such restlessness is sometimes caused by anxiety about separation from a parent. Difficulty settling down can also be due to a noisy environment or fear of the dark. The problem may simply be due to bedtime being too early; children vary in the amount of sleep they need.

Most children wake briefly several times during the night without needing attention. However, sudden wakefulness is sometimes caused by nightmares, particularly in children about 5 years of age. Nightmares are commonly triggered by frightening or unusual experiences and, if they occur frequently, may be a sign that a child has a particular worry.

Night terrors are another type of sudden sleep disturbance, which may occur for no apparent reason. During an episode of night terror, a child experiences acute fear and may scream. Although the child seems to be awake, he or she is actually still asleep. If a child wakes from a night terror, he or she usually has little or no memory of the episode. Night terrors usually occur within about 2 hours of falling asleep and last only a few minutes. Just before a night terror, a child may appear restless.

Sleepwalking most often occurs in preschool and school-age children. A sleepwalking child will get out of bed and wander around aimlessly, usually finding his or her own way back to bed.

What might be done?

Simple measures are often effective in overcoming a sleeping problem. You should try to establish regular routines, with a bath and a story at the same time every night. There is no need to go to a child as soon as he or she cries; often, the crying will stop within a few minutes. If you think that poor sleeping or nightmares are related to an underlying anxiety, such as a frightening television programme or family stress, you should discuss the problem with your child.

If your child has night terrors, it may be possible to wake him or her in the restless period that precedes the terror. Once a terror begins, there is little you can do except stay with the child until the fear recedes. In the case of sleepwalking, try not to wake the child but gently guide him or her back to bed.

You should consult the doctor if your child’s sleep problem disrupts the family or if you think that nightmares or night terrors have a particular cause.

In most cases, providing a child with reassurance and introducing a routine will help to establish a normal sleeping pattern within a few weeks. Most children eventually learn to settle down at night and outgrow nightmares, night terrors, or sleepwalking. By the age of 8, few children have sleeping problems.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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