Common sleep disorders in children

Baby’s impression of the world may be a blank slate, but that doesn’t mean they are starting from scratch in every aspect of their life. In fact, many babies, toddlers, and young children have to deal with interference with what might seem like one of the most natural and instinctive processes: sleep. In fact, the Cleveland Clinic states that around 25 to 30% of babies and young children suffer from sleep disorders at some point.

Sleep disorders, and the lack of sleep that can come with them, can interfere with children’s moods, lead to sleepiness during the day, and have been linked to learning problems, and even in rare cases some physical effects, including struggles with growth and development. Sleep disorders are often treatable, and can be addressed by specialists if a pediatrician or at-home interventions aren’t of sufficient help.

Sleep-onset association disorder

One of the most common sleep disorders often isn’t even acknowledged or addressed as a disorder, and is just talked about as a sleep habit that may need to be changed. This makes sense, because sleep-onset associations only become a problem when they’re hard to stick to. A sleep-onset association disorder happens when a child becomes dependent on a specific soothing technique to fall asleep, and then has trouble falling asleep under any other circumstances. On the other hand, if the association is with something fairly common and easy to keep up, it’s often not a problem.

If, for example, a baby’s sleep association is that they can only fall asleep under a roof, that may not be a problem until their first camping trip. If, on the other hand, a baby’s sleep association is with being continuously rocked by a parent who is hopping on one foot for an hour and a half before they can fall asleep, that’s a condition that can be hard to come by every night – or multiple times a night, if they are a light sleeper. Sleep-onset association disorder is often treated successfully at home, by parents who might not even know that they’re treating a recognized sleep disorder. It’s usually treated by introducing a new sleep association that’s easier to maintain, like sleeping with a pacifier or comfort object, singing a lullaby, or giving Baby a last quick kiss as the lights dim, and then phasing-out the older, more difficult association.

Obstructive sleep apnea

The most common sign of sleep apnea, in both children and adults, is persistent, loud snoring. Children who experience sleep apnea, however, don’t just snore – they also experience short gasps, snorts, and pauses in breathing, which can wake them up frequently during the night. If you think your child might be experiencing sleep apnea, it’s a good idea to speak with your little one’s pediatrician or other healthcare provider and go from there.


Insomnia in children, just like insomnia in adults, can be caused by stress or by health problems or underlying medical conditions, and can be treated by instituting good sleep habits and a relaxing bedtime routine. Insomnia in children is generally not treated with medication, but may in some cases be treated with behavioral therapy.

Other sleep differences

Babies’ sleep is naturally different from adults’ sleep in several ways that can seem like sleep disorders but aren’t. For example, while many babies do start sleeping for longer stretches of time, and even sleep through the night, it’s considered completely normal for younger children to wake up several times during the night on a regular basis. The occasional mid-night wake-up isn’t considered unusual, even as babies get older, and start to fall into more regular sleep patterns most of the time.

One of the differences between infant sleep and adult sleep, aside from the fact that babies have small stomachs and big appetites, is that babies’ sleep follows a shorter cycle. An adult’s sleep cycle usually lasts around 90 minutes, while a child’s sleep cycle often only lasts between 50 and 60 minutes. This means it can take some time for babies to learn to link their sleep cycles together without waking up in the middle.

  • Kristin Avis, Sricharan Moturi. “Assessment and treatment of common pediatric sleep disorders.” Psychiatry (Edgmont). v7(6). Web. June 2010.
  • Kyla Boyse. “Sleep Problems.” University of Michigan Health System. University of Michigan Health System, November 2010. Web.
  • C. Carolyn Thiedke. “Sleep Disorders and Sleep Problems in Childhood.” American Family Physician. 63(2): 277-285. Web. January 2001.
  • “ADHD and Sleep.” Sleep Foundation. National Sleep Foundation, 2016. Web.
  • “Could My Child Have Sleep Apnea?” Sleep Foundation. National Sleep Foundation, 2016. Web.
  • “Insomnia in Children.” Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic, 1995-2016. Web.
  • “Pediatric Sleep Disorder Centers.” Children’s Hospital. Boston Children’s Hospital. Web.
  • “Pediatric Sleep Disorders.” Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic, 1995-2016. Web.
  • “Pediatric Sleep Disorders.” Stanford Health Care. Stanford Medicine, 2016. Web.
  • “Snoring in Children.” Sleep Foundation. National Sleep Foundation, 2016. Web.
  • “Types of Sleep Disorders in Children.” Phoenix Children’s. Phoenix Children’s Hospital, 2016. Web.
Get the Ovia Parenting app
Get our app at the Apple App Store Get our app at the Apple App Store Get our app at the Google Play Store Get our app at the Google Play Store