Many children have sleep problems. Examples include:

  • Frequent awakening during the night;
  • Talking during sleep;
  • Difficulty falling asleep;
  • Waking up crying;
  • Feeling sleepy during the day;
  • Having nightmares; or
  • Bedwetting.

Many childhood sleep problems are related to irregular sleep habits or to anxiety about going to bed and falling asleep. Sleep problems may also be symptoms of emotional difficulties. “Separation anxiety” is a developmental landmark for young children. For normal young children, bedtime is a time of separation: Some children will do all they can to prevent separation.

To help minimize these types of common sleep problems, a parent can develop consistent and regular sleep routines for children.

Parents often find that feeding and rocking help an infant to get to sleep. However, as the child leaves infancy, parents should encourage the child to sleep without feeding and rocking. Otherwise, the developing child will have a hard time going to sleep alone.

Nightmares are relatively common. The child remembers nightmares, which usually involve major threats to the child’s well-being. Nightmares, which being at a variety of ages, affect girls more often than boys. For some, nightmares are serious and frequent.

Sleep terrors, sleepwalking, and sleep talking constitute a relatively rare group of sleep disorders, called “parasomnias.”

Sleep terrors are different from nightmares. The child with sleep terrors will scream uncontrollably and appear to be awake, but is confused and can’t communicate. Sleep terrors usually begin between ages 4 and 12.

Children who sleepwalk may appear to be awake as they move around, but are actually asleep and in danger of hurting themselves. Sleepwalking usually begins between ages 6 and 12. Both sleep terrors and sleepwalking run in families and affect boys more often than girls.

Most often, children with parasomnias have single or occasional episodes of these disorders. However, when episodes occur several times a night, or nightly for weeks at a time, or interfere with the child’s daytime behavior, treatment by a child and adolescent psychiatrist may be necessary. A range of treatments is available.

Fortunately, as they mature, children usually get over common sleep problems as well as the more serious disorders. However, parents with urgent concerns should contact their pediatrician or directly seek consultation with a child and adolescent psychiatrist.

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Copyright © 1997 by the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

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