Sleep Disorders in Children: Types, Characteristics and Symptoms

Sleep is a biological necessity, so when it is lacking or not totally reparable, other pathologies can develop both physically and mentally, so it is important to try to find a solution to all of them. these sleep disorders; especially at such a crucial stage as childhood.

There is a wide variety of sleep disorders in children, among which we can find the following: insomnia, infantile apnea, nightmare disorder, somnambulism, night terrors, somnolence or jactatio capitis, among others.

In this article we will talk about most common childhood sleep disordersbut let’s first explain what sleep disorders are in general.

What are the most common sleep disorders in children?

People’s sleep is divided into a series of 90-minute cycles, each repeated cyclically throughout the night’s rest, and it’s more common for a person to go through 4-6 cycles overnight. In each of these cycles there are several phases (phase 1, phase 2, phase 3, phase 4 and phase 5 or REM phase).

For restorative sleep each of the phases that make up each sleep cycle must proceed normally, in order and without interruption.; however, various sleep disorders can occur in childhood that could disturb them, leading to certain health problems in people. In addition, sleep disorders in children are quite common, being one of the most common problems in clinical practice, both in pediatrics and in psychology.

A sleep disorder is when we refer to any problem closely related to nighttime rest or sleep, including difficulty trying to fall asleep or staying asleep at night, as well as cases in which a person s falls asleep at inappropriate times, sleeps excessively (hypersomnia) or exhibits abnormal behaviors during sleep (eg sleepwalking).

At such an important stage as childhood, it is very important that sleep is restorative and get enough rest (from 11 to 14 hours for a child between 1 and 2 years old to sleep to 9 to 12 hours for children between the ages of 6 and 12 to sleep; therefore, a child in development should never sleep less than 9 or 10 hours).

On the other hand, it should be mentioned that sleep disorders in children could lead to significant problems affecting the child’s quality of life (eg irritability, reduced concentration and attention, etc.). ) as well as that of close relatives, such as their parents and siblings (e.g. sleep disorders).

Now that we have briefly seen what sleep disorders are, let’s take a look at the most common childhood sleep disorders, sorting them into two broad categories: dysomnias and parasomnias.


The American Psychiatric Association (APA) DSM-5 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not include the term dyssomnia; however, it was in the previous version (DSM-IV-TR). Here, we will use them to divide the child’s sleep disorders into two large groups to make it easier to organize them, which will make it easier for them to understand when studying them.

Within the category of insomnia, we can find sleep disorders in childhood related to the difficulties that some children have when trying to fall asleep, to maintain sleep and also the cases where there is excess sleep.

1. Insomnia

Insomnia is one of the childhood sleep disorders that we can find, and it is characterized by a reduction in rest time and also in the quality of sleepcausing clinically relevant discomfort in the affected child.

The main causes of insomnia in children are often inadequate sleeping habits, so it is common to have trouble sleeping and/or to wake up quite often at night; while another reason for childhood insomnia could be that the child suffers from anxiety and fear so that when he goes to bed he finds it difficult to fall asleep due to worrying manifest in thoughts that could cause him anxiety and restlessness.

2. Infant apnea or Ondina syndrome

Another of the existing childhood sleep disorders is childhood apnea, also known as Ondina’s syndrome, which is characterized by a series of respiratory arrests he experiences while sleepingcausing snoring and also excessive sleepiness throughout the day.

Moreover, such respiratory arrests can occur repeatedly throughout the night’s sleep, leading to awakenings and poor sleep.


By parasomnias we mean all childhood sleep disorders that are characterized by the existence of certain behaviors during nocturnal rest or certain unusual or unusual physiological and/or experiential phenomena which are associated with sleep, as they usually appear in some of the eastern phases or also in the transitions between sleep and wakefulness.

Some of these parasomnias, such as night terrors and sleepwalking, are listed in the DSM-5 as “non-REM sleep disorder”, not serious disorders, but they can cause some discomfort.

1. Nightmarish Disorder

Nightmare disorder, formerly known as anxiety disorder, is another of the most common childhood sleep disorders. It is also the most common parasomnia in childrenand is characterized by the appearance during night rest of dreams with unpleasant and even frightening content, causing the child to wake up.

Occasionally the fear caused by these nightmares could cause the child to have trouble falling back to sleepso it could lead to insomnia.

Nightmare disorder is usually not serious, as it usually occurs over a period of time due to a stressor in the child’s life or for some other reason and tends to go away when the phenomenon that triggered it has attenuated. When a nightmare disorder occurs, parents should try to calm their child, removing the importance of the nightmare.

2. Night Terrors

Another of the most common sleep disorders in children is night terrors, which are known as the appearance during sleep of frequent episodes of suddenly waking up with feelings of terror on the part of the child, so that it is common for him to start screaming during such awakenings because of the panic he felt. Moreover, during these episodes, having experienced panic, there are a number of warning signs such as tachycardia, mydriasis, excessive sweating and/or tachypnea (rapid, shallow breathing).

It should be mentioned that night terrors usually appear during the first third of the night, in phases 3 and 4 of sleep (in which the sleep is slow or deep), being strange that they appear during the phase of REM sleep, which is the phase during which episodes of nightmares usually occur.

3. Sleepwalking

Sleepwalking is known for the existence of repeated episodes during nocturnal sleep in which the child gets up and begins to walk around the house without waking up. While sleeping, during the sleepwalking episode, the child walks with a fixed gaze and when, so that he does not notice the intention of other people who may be around him (for example, his brothers and sisters or his parents) trying to communicate with him, being very difficult to wake him up.

Sleepwalking is a sleep disorder that it could last several years without causing alterations during waking hours or cause any other type of discomfort or psychopathology; however, it could as well as other sleep-related issues such as bedwetting, drowsiness, or nightmares.

4. Drowsiness

Sleep apnea is a parsimony that is not classified as a specified disorder within the well-known DSM-5 and is characterized by the existence of sound show episodes or speech during sleepbeing linked to stressful situations and family history.

The episodes that occur in sleepiness cases usually last only a few seconds and occur sporadically, and although they can occur at any age, they are more common in the preschool stage (around 3 to 7 years old).

5. Jactatio Capitis

Another sleep disorder in children is Jactatio Capitis, another parasomnia that does not appear to be classified as a Specified Disorder in the DSM-5 classification.

It is characterized by the presence of a series of rocking movements to try to reconcile sleep that occur automatically. This type of movement, more precisely, consists of swaying the head in rhythm, and can be accompanied occasionally by movements of the whole body.

Normally, the movements that occur in episodes of those who suffer from this parasomnia usually occur smoothly; however, in some cases it occurs more intensely and can even cause injury.

6. Nocturnal bruxism

Finally, among childhood sleep disorders, we also find nocturnal bruxism, another parasomnia that is not specified in the DSM-5. It is characterized by the grinding of teeth which consists of a behavior developed by the muscles of the jaw in rhythmthus producing friction in the teeth, so that if it happens in a strong way, the teeth could wear down.

In the case of nocturnal bruxism, we found that it could be due to a family history, although it could also be caused by moments of anxiety and/or frustration that the child has experienced.

Leave a Comment