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Sleep Problems in Children


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Reviewed/Revised Sep 2022
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Sleep problems in children include nightmares, night terrors and sleepwalking, not wanting to go to bed, and waking up during the night.

What are nightmares?

Nightmares are scary dreams.

  • Lots of children have nightmares

  • Nightmares aren't a problem unless your child starts having a lot of them

  • Stress and watching scary or violent movies can cause nightmares

  • If your child has a lot of nightmares, try to find out what’s causing them by keeping a diary with notes about when they happen and what they're about

What are night terrors?

Night terrors are episodes where your child screams and seems panicked shortly after falling asleep.

  • Night terrors are most common between ages 3 and 8

  • Some children with night terrors also sleepwalk

  • Your child may scream, look scared, breathe quickly, and sweat, but your child is not really awake so can’t be comforted and won’t answer questions

  • Unlike with nightmares, children don't remember having had a night terror

  • Night terrors usually go away on their own

  • Go to a doctor if your child has so many night terrors that it affects the amount of sleep your child gets or if night terrors still happen after age 12

What is sleepwalking?

In sleepwalking, children get out of bed and walk around even though they're still asleep. When they wake up, most children don't remember sleepwalking.

Children usually outgrow sleepwalking. Until they do, these steps may help your child avoid injury:

  • Move things your child could trip on

  • Lower the bed or put the mattress on the floor to prevent falls

  • Keep doors and windows closed and locked

  • Install a bed alarm that goes off when your child leaves the bed

  • Gently lead your child back to bed

Why don't some children go to bed easily?

It's sometimes hard to get children into bed at bedtime.

To help your child go to bed on time, you can:

  • Keep your child on a regular bedtime schedule

  • Give your child a teddy bear or object for comfort

  • Use a small night light or white noise machine

  • Sit quietly in the hallway where your child can see you and you can make sure your child stays in bed

Your goal is for your child to learn to fall asleep without you there. Leave the room once your child is quiet in bed but before your child falls asleep.

Why do infants and young children wake up during the night?

Everyone wakes up during the night. Most people fall back to sleep easily on their own. Children sometimes have a hard time going back to sleep.

  • By age 3 months, most children sleep for at least 5 hours at a time

  • Stressful events, such as being sick, can cause children to wake up more often during the night

  • Taking long naps in the afternoon, playing before bedtime, or some health problems can make children more likely to wake up during the night

To help children stay asleep at night or go back to sleep on their own:

  • Have the same bedtime routine each night

  • Read a short story together before bed

  • Offer a favorite toy or blanket to sleep with

  • Have children fall asleep in their own crib or bed—don't teach your child to fall asleep somewhere else and then get moved to the crib or bed while asleep

  • Let your child cry for a few minutes and settle down

If your child wakes up during the night:

  • Don't play with or feed your child

  • Don't spank or scold your child

  • Return your child to bed and tell your child it's time to sleep

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