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.

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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.

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

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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.

“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.

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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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