Jennifer Garden gets a lot of calls from concerned parents whose kids aren’t sleeping. “For the most part, kids are simply not able to get themselves to sleep,” says Garden, a registered occupational therapist and owner of SleepDreams in Vancouver. She says a thorough review of your child’s lifestyle can shed clues on what’s causing the sleep issue, be it a less-than-ideal sleep environment, airway obstruction, anxiety or even sleep apnea.

“We look at what’s causing the problem,” says Garden. “Are there feeding issues that impact the nighttime? Is the child snoring? Is the room too hot?”

Garden says determining the root cause is critical before an action plan is drawn up. And action needs to be taken. “For kids, 50% of their time is spent [sleeping],” she says, adding that tired kids can exhibit behavioural issues and experience academic challenges. Plus, there’s the fallout at home.

“It can affect the whole family,” she says.

5 common kids’ sleep problems

Kids can experience a number of sleep issues. These include:

  1. Night terrors. Usually affecting kids aged 2 to 4, night terrors cause children to wake up thrashing and screaming – but they are only partially awake and won’t be aware of your presence, according to the Canadian Pediatric Society (CPS). “The most common cause is not getting enough sleep,” says Garden, who adds that a full bladder or a fever can also be a trigger. She says you should remain calm and refrain from waking up your child, unless a medical practitioner has advised you to do scheduled wakings. The good news: Your child will likely outgrow this phase and won’t remember the night terror the next day.
  2. Nightmares. Unlike night terrors that occur in the first third of the time your child is asleep, nightmares occur in the REM cycle or last phase of sleep. They can also affect kids from the age of 2. Garden says many kids have difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality, and this can carry over into sleep. Comfort your children and let them know that the dream wasn’t real, according to the CPS. Garden suggests having a plan in place for nightmares, such as letting your child go back to sleep on a small mattress on the floor in your room, or turning to a favourite stuffed animal for comfort.
  3. Obstructed airway. When a child’s airway is obstructed, the result is laboured breathing and poor sleep. Garden says many kids with disabilities such as Down’s syndrome have palate changes that obstruct their airways. Kids with large adenoids or tonsils, or those with allergies and asthma can also suffer from airway obstruction, which can reveal itself as snoring or gasping during sleep. And some children have sleep apnea, a condition in which a person stops breathing periodically for a few seconds at a time, and ends up gasping for air. Garden suggests talking to your child’s pediatrician about what you’re seeing – or show him or her a video – and get a referral to a sleep specialist. Dentists can also determine whether kids are mouth-breathers who have trouble breathing through their noses. There are many ways of handling airway obstruction, such as having older children sleep on an elevated surface, having a doctor prescribe allergy or asthma medications if required, using a machine that provides continuous airway pressure or having excess tissue in the tonsils or adenoids surgically removed.
  4. Restless leg syndrome. This condition, which causes kids to have an unpleasant feeling or sensation in parts of their bodies when they lie down, is relieved by moving frequently, which leads to waking, according to HealthLinkBC. It is sometimes linked to low iron levels. Luckily, there are many ways you can help kids with restless legs. Have them engage in high-impact activity, says Garden. Dress them in tighter-fitting pajamas to provide continuous pressure to the legs and use calming techniques before bed.
  5. Sleepwalking. Sleepwalking most often occurs during the deeper sleep stages, according to KidsHealth. It causes kids to sit up or walk around or even run while asleep. It can be caused by fatigue, an irregular sleep schedule, illness, certain drugs or stress. If your child sleepwalks, lock all doors and windows, have your child sleep on a regular bed rather than a bunk bed to prevent falls, hide all dangerous objects and gently guide your child back to bed. Don’t wake your sleepwalking child, as he or she can become disoriented and upset if awakened suddenly.

Practice good sleep hygiene

Many sleep issues can be prevented through good sleep hygiene, says Alanna McGinn, founder of Good Night Sleep Site and director of the International Association of Child Sleep Consultants. She says parents need to be consistent in their approach to bedtimes, ensuring that children get enough restorative sleep to function during the day.

“Kids are going to bed way too late,” says McGinn, who is based in Burlington, Ontario. “They are more prone to sleep debt. Parents need to set those limits.”

Limits also need to be set on where a child sleeps. Kids who creep into your bedroom every night need to know that their bed is where they should sleep. “It’s called the silent return – take them back to their bed with a minimum of stimulation,” advises McGinn.

She says enforcing those limits is just one part of the solution; you also need to explain to your kids why sleep is important. She also suggests using calming techniques, such as breathing exercises before bed, some yoga poses or meditation.