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What are sleep-wake disorders?

Children with sleep-wake disorders don’t sleep well. Their sleep is so bad that it affects their health and behavior. All kids have the occasional bad night, but kids with sleep-wake disorders have serious trouble sleeping on a regular basis.  

Sleep-wake disorders are a group of more than a dozen specific problems that can get in the way of kids’ sleep. The most common sleep problem for children and teens is insomnia, which means trouble falling asleep and/or staying asleep. 

What are the symptoms of sleep-wake disorders?

Signs of sleep-wake disorders include: 

  • Trouble falling asleep 
  • Sleep that starts and stops during the night 
  • Teeth grinding while sleeping 
  • Wetting the bed 
  • A lot of nightmares 
  • Trouble breathing while sleeping 
  • Sleeping too much 
  • Feeling very tired during the day 
  • Falling asleep in the middle of a task 
  • Trouble staying focused, especially during schoolwork 
  • Being easily annoyed 
  • Mood swings 

How are sleep-wake disorders diagnosed?

A sleep specialist can diagnose sleep-wake disorders by speaking with the child and their family.  

They will ask questions about the child’s sleep habits. They may ask the family to take notes on the child’s sleep for a few days or weeks.  

The specialist may also want to test the child overnight while they sleep. In this case, the child will spend the night a sleep lab. While the child sleeps, a doctor use a test called a polysomnogram to measure the child’s brain activity, movements and breathing.  

Some of the symptoms of sleep-wake disorders can look like other mental health disorders, such as major depressive disorder or substance use disorder. That’s why it’s important to have a doctor figure out what is causing the child’s symptoms. 

What are the risk factors for sleep-wake disorders?

Sleep-wake disorders can be caused by not learning to fall asleep or stay asleep without a parent. Not having a regular bedtime or routine can also be a factor. Sometimes, the cause is a mental health disorder or medical problem.  

Often, sleep-wake disorders start when the child goes through something difficult. This might be an illness or a separation from a parent. Stress over time can also cause sleep-wake disorders. 

How are sleep-wake disorders treated?

Sleep-wake disorders can be treated with therapy, medication or both.  

There are two types of therapy for sleep-wake disorders: 

  • Talk therapy: In talk therapy, the child talks with a therapist to understand why they have trouble sleeping. 
  • Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT): In CBT, children learn to change habits that get in the way of sleep, like teeth grinding.  

There are also medications that can help treat sleep-wake disorders. Children taking medication should always be monitored by a doctor. 

This guide was last reviewed or updated on December 12, 2023.