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Sleep problems in children and teenagers

3-15 years

Up to 40% of children and teenagers have some type of sleep problem. Sleep problems are problems with getting to sleep or staying asleep. You can manage and get over many sleep problems in your child using common behaviour strategies.

You can read this article in a selection of languages other than English.

Problems with sleep

All children can have trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep. These problems with sleep can have many different causes.

Bedtime routine and sleep environment
Your child needs about an hour of quiet time to wind down and relax for sleep. Too much excitement, noise and activity before bed can get kids revved up and make it harder for them to settle down for sleep when it’s time.

Likewise, a sleep environment that’s too noisy, light, cold or hot can make it harder for children to get to sleep.

Sometimes changes to children’s normal bedtime routine or environment can affect how well they settle down. For example, daylight saving, jet lag, an unfamiliar bedroom or a sleepover can have a child bouncing around when he’d normally be asleep.

Nutrition
What your child eats and drinks can affect her ability to settle down at night.

For example, if children consume caffeine – in energy drinks, coffee, tea, chocolate and cola – especially in the late afternoon and evening, this might keep them awake at night.

Night terrors, nightmares and sleepwalking
If your child sometimes wakes up screaming or crying, it could be a night terror. Night terrors are normal in children aged 4-12 years, and most children outgrow them by the time they’re teenagers.

Your child might also have nightmares. Nightmares or bad dreams can wake children up and make it hard for them to get back to sleep.

Your child might sleepwalk – that is, walk around the house as if he’s awake when he’s actually in a deep sleep. Sleepwalking doesn’t harm your child, but it can upset your family’s sleep. Some parents find it hard to sleep because they worry that children might fall and hurt themselves while sleepwalking.

Although night terrors, nightmares and sleepwalking are all pretty normal, it’s best to talk to your doctor if you’re worried or if your child’s behaviour seems severe. Sleepwalking can sometimes be a sign of an illness or medical condition.

Bedwetting and toileting
If your child isn’t dry at night, she might wake because she’s wetting the bed. Or she might wake to go to the toilet and then find it hard to get back to sleep. 

You can talk with your child’s doctor if toilet training and bedwetting are problems for your child.

Health and wellbeing
Some children can suffer from illnesses – for example, colds or ear infections – that make it hard for them to settle or sleep well. Chronic illnesses such as asthma or epilepsy can also affect children’s sleep.

Some children snore. If your child snores all the time, even when he’s well, consider talking with your child’s doctor. Snoring can sometimes be a sign of sleep apnoea.

Anxiety can affect children’s sleep too. If your child is really anxious or worried about something, she might find it hard to get to sleep, or get back to sleep if she wakes in the night. It’s a good idea to talk with your child’s doctor if your child has sleep problems and a chronic illness or anxiety.

Sometimes problems with children’s sleep are caused by persistent sleep problems. Persistent sleep problems are behaviour issues or medical conditions that affect children’s sleep and make it hard for them to function during the day. Talk with your child’s doctor if you’re concerned.

Managing sleep problems

Some sleep problems are behaviour issues that you can manage by promoting good sleep habits. These include positive bedtime routines to encourage settling and sleep, a quiet and relaxing sleep environment, and good health, nutrition and activity during the day.

Sleep problems often start to get better after the first week of getting into good sleep habits. If you don’t see any improvement, there might be medical reasons for your child’s sleep problems. It’s worth talking with your doctor in this situation.

If your child has been sick, you’ve probably been up and down to him at night, soothing and settling him. Once he’s better, he might like to keep having all that extra night-time attention. If this sounds like your situation, you might need to be firm about getting back into your child’s normal bedtime routine.

But do talk with your child’s doctor if you think your child’s poor sleep is related to a medical problem – for example, asthma or epilepsy.

Some sleep problems such as jet lag and adapting to daylight saving time usually sort themselves out in about a week as your child’s sleep cycle adjusts to a new bedtime.

Persistent sleep problems can make it harder for children to learn well. And when children don’t sleep well, their parents are likely to experience poor sleep, high levels of stress and depression. So there are good reasons for working on your child’s sleep habits.

Getting help

Talk with your doctor if you’ve been trying good sleep habits and they don’t seem to be helping. You might be referred to a paediatrician, psychologist or other health professional who is experienced in treating children’s persistent sleep problems.

Medication
Although medication isn’t the best solution to sleep problems, it can help in some extreme cases.

For example, some promising research shows that melatonin might help some children with insomnia. Melatonin can be prescribed only by a doctor. It shouldn’t be given to a child without medical advice and supervision.

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Last updated or reviewed
13-05-2013

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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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