Children's Hospital Colorado

Sleep Disorders in Children

What are sleep disorders?

Sleep disorders are conditions that make it difficult for children to get enough rest or that cause excessive sleepiness. Childhood sleep disorders affect school performance by causing decreased attention, learning, memory and focus. Additionally, sleep disorders can affect a child’s behavior, causing irritability and hyperactivity.

Pediatric sleep conditions include:

What causes sleep disorders?

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is defined as pauses in breathing that frequently occur with snoring or gasping. An obstruction of the airway caused by enlarged tonsils and adenoids and/or obesity is often the cause of OSA. Conditions related to decreased muscle tone or craniofacial abnormalities seen in Down syndrome or in children with nasal obstruction can also cause the condition. We use an overnight sleep study to diagnose OSA.
  • Insomnia is trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. It can be caused by poor sleep habits and routines. Sometimes insomnia is caused by conditions such as obstructive sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome. The first line of treatment for insomnia is the use of cognitive behavioral strategies to change habits and behaviors and relearn how to fall asleep and stay asleep.
  • Central apnea occurs when the part of the brain that controls breathing doesn't properly maintain the breathing process. It is fairly common in very premature infants because the respiratory center in the brain is immature.
  • Hypoventilation is inadequate breathing or ventilation at night. It can lead to abnormal blood gas levels (the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the bloodstream). Hypoventilation in children is typically associated with conditions such as obesity or muscular dystrophy.
  • Circadian rhythm sleep disorders cause a child or teenager to sleep at late or irregular times. This occurs when their internal body clock is disrupted. Teenagers commonly have delayed sleep phase and are late to bed and late to rise.
  • Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder characterized by excessive sleepiness, dream-like activity while awake and a sudden loss of muscle tone.
  • Parasomnias are disorders that cause unusual or abnormal behaviors while falling asleep, sleeping or waking up. They include sleepwalking, night terrors and confusional arousals. Confusional arousals can cause your child to act strangely or confused as they wake up or just after waking up.
  • Rhythmic movement disorder involves some type of rocking, rolling or head banging. For most children, it is a soothing way to fall asleep and of no concern.
  • Restless leg syndrome is a condition that causes a strong urge to move the legs. In some cases, restless leg syndrome runs in families. An important chemical in the brain called dopamine that helps control motion may be low in children with restless leg syndrome. It may also be related to low iron levels in the brain. Iron is required for proper dopamine activity.
  • Periodic limb movement disorder causes frequent twitching or movements of the legs or feet during sleep. These frequent movements can interrupt sleep and lead to daytime sleepiness.

Get to know our pediatric experts.

Ruth Devoogd, PNP, MS, BSN

Ruth Devoogd, PNP, MS, BSN

Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner

Amanda Messinger, MD

Amanda Messinger, MD

Pulmonology - Pediatric, Pediatrics

Scott Sagel, MD, PhD

Scott Sagel, MD, PhD

Pulmonology - Pediatric