Sleep-Wake Disorders Basics

Sleep-wake disorders are problems that impair the quality or quantity of a child's sleep enough to undermine overall health and functioning. This guide outlines the symptoms of sleep-wake disorders, how they’re diagnosed and how they're treated in kids.

Sleep-Wake Disorders: What Are They?

Every parent knows first hand the importance of a good night’s sleep for a child’s behavior and wellbeing. While most kids experience the occasional night of tossing and turning, some are affected by disorders that routinely disturb their sleep and correspondinglytheir ability to function during the day. Sleep-wake disorders is an umbrella name for upwards of a dozen specific conditions that impair the quality or quantity of sleep a child gets enough to undermine her overall health and functioning. 

Sleep-Wake Disorders: What to Look For

Difficulty falling asleep, fitful, interrupted sleep, teeth-grinding during sleep, bedwetting, recurrent nightmares and difficulty breathing while asleep can all be signs of sleep-wake disorders. Oversleeping can be a sign of these disorders as well. Daytime signs of sleep-wake disorders include fatigue, dozing off while in the middle of a task, trouble focusing (especially during cognitive tasks while at school), irritability, and mood swings.

Sleep-Wake Disorders: Risk Factors

Sleep difficulties in childhood can result from problematic conditioning (not learning to fall asleep or stay asleep without the presence of a parent), the absence of consistent sleep schedules and bedtime routines, and other psychological and medical factors. Sleep-wake disorders are often precipitated by an event (illness, separation) or ongoing stress.

Sleep-Wake Disorders: Diagnosis

If a sleep-wake disorder is suspected, a primary care physician may recommend that a child see a sleep specialist. A sleep specialist will ask the child and the family questions about her sleep habits, and may suggest keeping track of her sleeping patterns in a “sleep diary.” A sleep specialist may also administer a test called a polysomnogram to measure brain and muscle activity (including breathing) while she is asleep.

Sleep-Wake Disorders: Treatment

Treatment may include psychotherapy, medication or both. A combination of psychotherapy techniques may prove most effective; talk therapy can a child understand why he or she may have difficulties involving sleep, and cognitive behavior therapy can help adjust certain habits, such as teeth grinding, associated with sleep-wake disorders. A range of pharmacological options are also available to help treat the wide variety of conditions found within sleep-wake disorders.

Sleep-Wake Disorders: Risk For Other Disorders

Difficulty sleeping, fatigue and irritability may also appear as symptoms of other mental disorders such as major depressive disorder or substance use disorder. A doctor can determine whether a child’s difficulties involving sleep may be symptoms of a sleep-wake disorder, another mental disorder or a medical condition.