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Persistent sleep problems in children and teenagers

3-15 years

A persistent sleep problem is a behaviour issue or medical condition that affects your child’s sleep for a prolonged period. Different problems can affect children at different ages, and usually need professional treatment.

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Common persistent sleep problems

Some persistent sleep problems are to do with your child’s behaviour. These problems can happen at bedtime or during the night when your child is asleep. Behaviour-based sleep problems that can be ongoing include your child:

  • calling out and getting out of bed
  • not wanting to sleep in his own bed
  • having trouble getting to sleep because he needs you, needs a bottle and so on
  • waking up often during the night
  • feeling very anxious.

Other persistent sleep problems are medical conditions. They include the following sleep disorders:

  • insomnia – when a child has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
  • sleep apnoea caused by enlarged adenoids and/or tonsils
  • restless leg syndrome – when a child (or grown-up) feels really uncomfortable in her legs and can’t stop herself from moving them
  • body-rocking, head-rolling and head-banging
  • nightmares and night terrors
  • narcolepsy – when people can’t control overwhelming feelings of tiredness during the day (this is a lifelong neurological problem)
  • delayed sleep phase – when a child’s circadian rhythm doesn’t match the bedtime and wake time needed for school, work or other daily routines.
A sudden change in your child’s sleep might be a short-term sleep problem, rather than a persistent sleep problem. Sleep problems usually don’t last long, and encouraging good sleep habits often helps to sort them out.

Persistent sleep problems at different ages

Children of all ages get persistent sleep problems, but different problems are more common at different ages. Below are some examples of persistent sleep problems at different ages.

Preschoolers (3-5 years)

  • Night-time fears
  • The need for something to go to sleep with – for example, a bottle of milk in bed
  • Bedtime resistance
  • Nightmares
  • Sleep apnoea
  • Night terrors
  • Sleepwalking

School-age children (5-8 years)

  • Poor sleep habits – for example, having a computer or TV in the bedroom
  • Sleepwalking
  • Night terrors
  • Teeth-grinding
  • Sleep apnoea

Pre-teens (9-11 years)

  • Poor sleep habits – for example, having a computer or TV in the bedroom
  • Sleep apnoea
  • Insomnia
  • Delayed sleep phase

Early teens (12-15 years)

  • Poor sleep habits – for example, having a computer, TV and/or phone in the bedroom
  • Insomnia
  • Delayed sleep phase
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Narcolepsy

Treating persistent sleep problems

Persistent sleep problems usually need professional treatment.

If you think your child has a persistent sleep problem, talk with your GP about getting an assessment of your child’s sleep. You might be referred to a paediatrician, psychologist or other health professional who is experienced in identifying and treating persistent sleep problems in children.

Some persistent sleep problems can be treated with behaviour strategies to reduce the behaviour that caused the problem. These strategies aim to teach your child about the importance of sleep and how to sleep better. Your health professional will work with you and your child to find a behaviour strategy to help him sleep better.

If your child’s persistent sleep problem is a medical condition or sleep disorder, it might need some kind of medical treatment. For example, if your child has sleep apnoea that is caused by enlarged adenoids, she might need an operation to take out her adenoids. This should improve her breathing during sleep.

Sometimes your child’s doctor might prescribe medication to treat your child’s persistent sleep problem. Read more in our article on sleep medications and children.

How persistent sleep problems affect children and their families

Persistent sleep problems usually mean not enough sleep – and not enough good sleep – for children and their families. On top of that, if your child has a persistent sleep problem, he might have:

  • more behaviour problems
  • a poorer memory
  • problems with understanding instructions
  • trouble with concentration
  • more tiredness during the day
  • the need for more naps.

You, your partner and your other children might also have some of these symptoms. 

Caring for a child with a persistent sleep problem disrupts the family routine and can increase your stress and anxiety. Try to look after yourself and ask for help from family and friends. Parenting hotlines might also be helpful.

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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