The most common sleep disorders in children

Sleep disorders can already occur in childhood and have a major impact on health and child development. Sleep expert and pediatrician Dr. medical Alfred Wiater explains which sleep disorders are most common in children and what parents can do to help their loved ones sleep.

Table of Contents

  1. When children can't sleep
  2. The most common sleep disorders in children
  3. Conclusion

1. When children can't sleep

Sleep plays a central role in our lives and is particularly important in childhood, when we are in the crucial phases of human development and growth. A quiet and restful sleep is not only a big challenge for us adults, but especially for children. It is all the more important to support children in developing healthy sleeping habits and in finding enough sleep in the turbulent everyday life. This is because persistent sleep problems can develop into serious sleep disorders at a young age and impair a child's healthy development.

Paediatrician, sleep medicine specialist and smartsleep® expert Dr. medical Alfred Wiater

Good to know: In this article you can read about the difference between sleep in childhood and adulthood and here you will find helpful tips on how to support your child's healthy sleep.

2. The most common sleep disorders in children

#1 Chronic insomnia

Chronic insomnia is most common in children and adults. Insomnia is a non-organic sleep disorder that affects falling asleep, staying asleep and waking up too early, leading to not being fit during the day. Chronic insomnia is when the problems occur at least three times a week for a period of one to three months. About 20% to 30% of children and consequently their parents are affected.

Insomnia in children can manifest itself as considerable resistance to going to bed, repeatedly delaying falling asleep and repeatedly waking up and crying at night. Children up to the age of 5 are particularly affected. In older children and adolescents, insomnia is often determined by fears and worries that prevent them from falling asleep and cause them to wake up again and again.

First Aid: Insomnia in children can be a challenge for the whole family - but there are effective treatment options! A consistent bedtime routine and soothing bedtime rituals are usually the first steps that can stabilize sleep patterns and improve well-being for both the child and their parents.

#2 Obstructive sleep apnea

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obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), also known as obstructive sleep apnea syndrome, is a breathing-related sleep disorder of which approx. 5% of children are affected. During sleep, the upper respiratory tract suddenly narrows or closes, which repeatedly interrupts the oxygen supply. Most of the affected children are therefore noticed by breathing pauses and snoring at night. The children do not sleep well and often show symptoms during the day. In contrast to adults who suffer from OSA, the focus is not on daytime tiredness, but on restless, hyperactive behavior with reduced concentration and stamina.

The most common cause of OSA in children is enlargement of the pharyngeal and palatine tonsils. Being overweight promotes obstructive sleep apnea, as does anatomically caused narrowing of the upper airways, e.g. B if the chin is receded, causing the tongue to move back during sleep and narrowing the airway. But not all children who snore have obstructive sleep apnea. However, habitual snoring could also disrupt sleep and thereby affect children during the day. If in doubt, a sleep laboratory test will help.

First aid: Tonsil surgery can help many children if the pharyngeal and palatine tonsils are enlarged. If this is not the cause of the OSA, early orthodontic therapy and myofunctional support (ie. H therapy to improve muscle function) can be helpful. Assisted breathing during sleep, which is often used in adults, is rarely required in children.

#3 sleepwalking

In sleepwalking (somnambulism) there is a sudden getting out of bed and consequent unusual behavior. Those affected are restless, dismissive and/or aggressive and often carry out untargeted abstruse actions. They are disoriented and have confused responses when spoken to. There is a high insensitivity to pain, so that self-injury also occurs.

The highest incidence for somnambulism is at 13.4% at age 10. The risk of sleepwalking is significantly increased if one or both parents of the affected child are also sleepwalking. The majority of those affected resolve spontaneously by adolescence. Lack of sleep, psychologically stressful situations, but also fever are factors that can provoke or exacerbate the occurrence of the disorder.

The main risk of somnambulism is self-harm. People who are sleepwalking may fall down the stairs, open the window and jump out, or run into the street. So there can be no question of the proverbial somnambulistic security. Caution: Waking up while sleepwalking can provoke aggressive behavior and in particular leads to unnecessary interruption and disruption of sleep.

First aid: Medical therapy is not usually used for somnambulism in children and adolescents. The focus is on detailed advice on the classification of the symptoms as a developmental phenomenon that usually stops as the patient ages. However, it is highly recommended to secure the sleeping environment at home and in unfamiliar surroundings in such a way that injuries cannot occur during sleepwalking.

#4 Night Terror

Night terror (pavor nocturnus) occurs most frequently in infancy and is typically associated with high-pitched screaming and fearful behavior accompanied by marked excitement. The child usually sits in bed and resists any attempts to calm it down. Night terrors typically occur from deep sleep and may be followed by sleepwalking. The children usually have no memory of the waking episode the next day.

Children aged 1.5 years are most commonly affected at around 34%. One-third of children who experienced night terrors in early childhood developed sleepwalking later in life. The onset of night terrors can therefore be inferred from a family history of sleepwalking.

First aid: Unfortunately, there are no direct treatment options. The best thing to do is to calm the children down while they are experiencing symptoms. In order to be able to clearly classify the problem, it is also helpful to make a video of the events and have it assessed by a pediatrician.

#5 Nightmares in children

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Nightmares are characterized by recurring mood-stressing dreams with threatening content that are also remembered. Unlike night terrors, nightmares usually only appear during REM sleep in the early hours of the morning. When waking up from a nightmare, those affected quickly regain their bearings. The incidence of nightmares in children is highest between the ages of 6 and 6. and 10 Age. Almost all children and adolescents have experienced nightmares at some point, but about 5% of them experience them once a week or more.

For the nightmare diagnosis, the description of the parents or partner and the children themselves. It must be taken into account that dreams are only considered to be remembered from the age of 3 years and that a reliable survey is only possible from this age.

First aid: In the acute situation after waking up from a nightmare, the children should briefly describe the content of the dream so that they can then fall asleep again after a short period of calming down. Depending on the severity and content of the dream, psychotherapeutic care is recommended.

#6 Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) describes an unpleasant urge to move the legs, and rarely also the arms. It occurs exclusively or predominantly in rest and relaxation, especially in the evening and in the first half of the night. Usually, but not necessarily, other symptoms such as tingling, pulling, tearing, stinging, a feeling of pressure, painful or abnormal sensations that the patient cannot describe in detail are associated with it. The complaints occur on both sides with alternating side stress. The symptoms can be reduced somewhat by moving your legs or changing your position in bed. However, those affected often prefer to get up and walk around, because this typically leads to a cessation or a significant alleviation of the symptoms. RLS tends to run in families, but is rather rare in childhood and affects around 2-4%.

One of the most common triggering factors is iron deficiency with low stored iron (ferritin) levels.

First Aid: The iron status should be examined first. An iron deficiency and already slightly low ferritin levels can easily be treated as possible triggers of RLS by taking additional iron.

3. Conclusion

  • Children are also affected by serious sleep disorders, although sleep is particularly important for physical and mental health and development, especially at a young age.
  • The most common sleep disorders in childhood are insomnia, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), sleepwalking, night terrors, nightmares and restless leg syndrome (RLS).
  • Parents can support their children's sleep in a targeted manner by acquiring knowledge about the peculiarities of children's sleep and, if necessary, by seeking medical or therapeutic help.

Greetings and see you next time!

smartsleep Schlaf und Gesundheit Experte Dr. med. Alfred Wiater

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