4 Sleep Disorders That Leave Kids and Teens Tired

If your child has too many sleepless nights, learn what to do about it

Sleepy child

From sleep apnea to insomnia, the sleep disorders that keep adults up at night and dragging during the day can have the same effect on children and teens.

As pediatric sleep expert Jyoti Krishna, MD, notes, these sleep disorders can affect your children’s health — and yours, since you care for them. Dr. Krishna offers facts on a few common childhood sleep disorders, as well as steps you can take to overcome them.

Sleep apnea

Snoring, disturbed sleep, pauses in breathing while asleep — these symptoms of sleep apnea strike children, too.

On top of the typical adult consequences of sleep apnea such as mood changes, daytime fatigue and high blood pressure, Dr. Krishna says, children with sleep apnea may also wet the bed. And they may have similar daytime issues to children with ADHD: trouble concentrating and poor grades, for example. In fact, many cases of sleep apnea may be misdiagnosed as ADHD.

What to do: If you suspect sleep apnea, ask for a sleep study. “Sleep studies are the gold standard to distinguish simple snoring from snoring associated with sleep apnea,” Dr. Krishna says. If your child has sleep apnea, removing the tonsils may be the first-line treatment. Some children may need CPAP — a machine that helps with nighttime breathing.

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“Sleep studies are the gold standard to distinguish simple snoring from snoring associated with sleep apnea.”


Insomnia affects children in much the same way it affects adults — except that it’s usually the parent who notices and reports it. Like adults, children may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.

Acute cases can be brought on by stress or illness, but if insomnia lasts longer than a month, it may be chronic.

What to do: For milder cases, help your children practice good sleep hygiene. Stick to a regular bedtime routine. Avoid caffeine. Keep electronics out of the bedroom.  Keep the bedroom cool and dark. For chronic cases, ask your doctor if cognitive behavioral therapy would help your child establish better sleep habits — habits that can help prevent sleep problems later in life, too.

Limit-setting sleep disorder

Certain types of insomnia are specific to young children. One is limit-setting sleep disorder, which happens when you have the opposite of a standard sleep routine. You allow just one more movie, one more glass of water, one more form of stalling before bedtime.

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“That can translate in teenagers to one more text message or one more phone call to a friend,” Dr. Krishna points out. In either case, the result is irregular sleep patterns and a late bedtime that reduces the opportunity to get a full night’s rest before school the next day.

What to do: Set limits, and be firm. Give rewards to reinforce desired behaviors. Pick a standard bedtime, and stick to it as best you can. This may result in some pushback — but it also should result in better sleep for everyone in your household. For difficult cases, a consult with a sleep doctor may help.

Delayed sleep phase syndrome

As if puberty didn’t bring enough worries, it also may throw off a teenager’s sleep-wake cycle. When they have delayed sleep phase syndrome, which Dr. Krishna says may affect up to 10 percent of teens, they become typical “night owls” — late to bed and late to rise.

This is often mislabeled as excessive daytime sleepiness or conversely as insomnia at night. “In reality, it’s teenagers sleeping on their own time — the time that feels natural to them.”

What to do: Teach your teen good sleep hygiene habits. Make sure they avoid caffeine. Limit daytime napping and use of electronics at night. Such conservative therapies work in most cases, Dr. Krishna says. If they fail, a sleep doctor can determine if melatonin or light-box therapy would help. The goal is to readjust your teen’s clock back to a schedule that’s in sync with school and society.

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  • Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D.

    Some of causes of sleep disorders are emotional and these
    emotions are often expressed in bad dreams. Children may be afraid to sleep or
    wake up and be unable to go back to sleep because of nightmares and bad
    dreams. I am a child psychotherapist who
    has written a children’s book for ages three and up, Mommy, Daddy, I Had a Bad
    Dream! (mommydaddyihadabaddream.com) to empower children to understand their
    bad dreams. Joey, a young kangaroo, has a series of bad dreams which his
    parents lovingly help him to understand. By the last dream, Joey can make sense
    of it himself and put himself back to bed. Once children realize that bad
    dreams are caused by upsetting events from the previous day and that they can
    be seen as puzzles to be solved, they are intrigued and empowered rather than
    frightened and helpless.

  • See csd-n.org

    Thank you for including Delayed Sleep-Phase Syndrome (DSPS)!! Many teens do outgrow it, but some of us suffer from it all our lives. Not too many doctors understand it yet, so it’s still hard to get a correct diagnosis. We need more awareness among the public and among the medical profession. Circadian Sleep Disorders Network (csd-n.org) is a non-profit organization for supporting such sufferers and for spreading awareness. Thanks again!

  • evelinehonig

    Sorry Narcolepsy was not mentioned. We see it more and more in children.

    Eveline Honig, MD

    Executive Director, Narcolepsy Network

    • Julie Flygare, JD

      Thank you, Eveline. I agree!

  • Julie Flygare, JD

    Thank you for this article. I am a sleep advocate and applaud raising awareness about pediatric sleep disorders. However, given that narcolepsy affects 1 in 2,000 people in America and children and teens are being diagnosed at an increasing rate, I’m puzzled why it’s not on this list. For more information about narcolepsy: http://www.julieflygare.com

  • http://www.facebook.com/noneyabinnis Jorma J. Takala

    I ended a 44 year old bipolar manic disorder and subsequently my sleeping problems when I adopted an organic and natural diet and lifestyle.

    I discovered that I along with every other man, woman and child in America is allergic to the artificial colors, flavors, MSG and the preservatives BHA, BHT, TBHQ and Calcium Disodiium EDTA.

    All of the artificial additives listed above cause swelling of the brain stem and the subsequent intracranial pressure increase within the cranial cavity.

    The swollen brain stem pushing outwards from the center of the brain and the intracranial pressure on the external surfaces of the brain caused my migraine headaches, tinnitus, and the symptoms of an allergic reaction, fever chills, hives, formication. Because of the proximity of the medulla to the brain stem, that condition caused my bipolar mood swings to be a predominant behavioral trait.

    I discovered that Dye Free Benadryl makes the allergy symptoms and migraine headaches to disappear within about 30 minutes.

    Racing thoughts was a symptom of the bipolar and they kept me awake till 4, 5 am and finally I would fall out from total exhaustion.

    When adopted the organic and natural diet and lifestyle, I lost 200+ pounds and have no more problems with sleep apnea, OCD, ADD, ADHD, Daily Migraine headaches and, or the symptoms of the allergy I have to the additives.

    The problems caused by the swelling of the brain stem do not end in the cranial cavity. Your entire body is connected to your brain and that connection goes directly through the brain stem. In addition to the compression of the delicate tissues of the brain the nerve signals/electrical impulses are obstructed/hindered by the swelling.

    You give me the use of an MRI, CT Scan and brain mapping equipment and the personnel to run it, I can absolutely prove this is 100% accurate.

    I can also prove that the toxic chemical additives are the cause of Autism, Alzheimers and much more!

  • http://www.facebook.com/noneyabinnis Jorma J. Takala

    I am also willing to work with some doctors to show them all of this and how it applies to every one in America!

    I really can prove this!