Children and Sleep Disorders: What Parents Need to Know

According to the National Sleep Foundation, about 69 percent of children age 10 and under experience some type of sleep problem, and of these, about half might need medical attention. Stony Brook Children’s Hospital's Catherine Kier, MD, a pediatric pulmonologist and pediatric sleep specialist, discusses sleep disorders in infants and children, and what measures you can take to promote better sleep.

Why are sleep disorders a concern for children?

Sleep is vital to a child’s health and development. Insufficient sleep can lead to irritability, lack of focus, learning and behavioral problems. The types of disorders typically seen are snoring, sleep apnea, nocturnal enuresis (bedwetting), insomnia (the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep), nightmares, restless legs syndrome, sleep walking and talking, and night terrors. Prolonged sleep issues may indicate an underlying physical or emotional problem that should be evaluated by a medical professional.

What are the signs that parents should look for?

  • Continued snoring, which may indicate an obstruction
  • Breathing interruptions, heavy breathing and/or gasping for air during sleep
  • Not refreshed upon waking up
  • Poor concentration or inability to focus during the daytime
  • Frequent night terrors that do not resolve on their own

What about sleep disorders in infants and toddlers?

In infancy, sleep disruption may occur as a result of colic, feeding intolerance and abdominal pain or irritability. Older infants may show sleep disorders as learned behaviors, for example, crying to signal parents to the bedside. Some infants and toddlers may have sleep disorders that need medical attention, such as airway abnormalities, breathing difficulties caused by gastroesophageal reflux, or enlarged adenoids. Even in younger children and infants, these can be diagnosed through an overnight polysomnography, a sleep study administered by experienced technicians under supervision of a pediatric sleep specialist. Information from the sleep study is used to make medical decisions that can improve breathing and sleep of a developing child.

What can parents do to encourage better sleep?

With infants under six months, it is important to position them on their back for sleep. In older infants, because sleep habits are learned behaviors, they can be improved both by changing habits and establishing a bedtime routine. For children over age two, parents can:

  • Set limits
  • Eliminate TV viewing, playing video games, or using other electronics at least one hour prior to bedtime
  • Keep pets out of the bed
  • Develop a bedtime routine

If these measures do not work, what are the next steps?

Parents should ask their child’s pediatrician to check for underlying physical conditions. If further evaluation is needed, they can be referred to Stony Brook Children’s fully accredited Sleep Disorders Center in Smithtown. Here, children can be tested in a safe, comfortable environment. The Center also treats children under age two, so infants, toddlers and their parents can benefit from this specialized expertise. Run by board-certified, fellowship trained physicians, the team includes a pediatric pulmonologist/sleep specialist dedicated to children’s sleep disorders. As part of an academic medical center, the Sleep Disorders Center has access to the latest protocols.

What is a sleep evaluation like?

The staff and sleep technicians at the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Center are trained to prepare the child for testing in a friendly manner. Children can sleep in either a crib or bed, and they are encouraged to bring along a favorite stuffed toy, pillow or blanket. Parents may even bring a favorite movie, game or snack to make the stay easier. One parent stays the night, sleeping on a separate bed or a recliner beside the child. The testing itself is a painless and fairly easy process. The sleep technician explains the procedure, then applies the electrodes and monitors. All equipment remains outside the body, including the nasal cannula, placed at the entrance of both nostril openings. A polysomnogram test evaluates brain activity, oxygen saturation, breathing and movement. Data is collected through sensors temporarily attached to the body. The data then is “scored” by the technician and “interpreted” by our pediatric sleep specialist. At the two-week follow-up visit, the team will design a treatment and management regimen designed for the child’s specific needs.

For more information or to consult with a pediatric sleep specialist, call (631) 444-2500.

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All health and health-related information contained in this article is intended to be general and/or educational in nature and should not be used as a substitute for a visit with a healthcare professional for help, diagnosis, guidance, and treatment. The information is intended to offer only general information for individuals to discuss with their healthcare provider. It is not intended to constitute a medical diagnosis or treatment or endorsement of any particular test, treatment, procedure, service, etc. Reliance on information provided is at the user's risk. Your healthcare provider should be consulted regarding matters concerning the medical condition, treatment, and needs of you and your family. Stony Brook University/SUNY is an affirmative action, equal opportunity educator and employer.