A little girl sleeps under a yellow comforter while holding a teddy

Pediatric Sleep Disorders

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When your child can’t sleep well, you can’t either. You’re worried about your child’s uneven breathing while they sleep. Or you’re just lying awake waiting for screaming brought on by another nightmare. Many conditions can disrupt a child’s sleep. Some of these are a normal part of growing up. But if they’re causing other issues or seem to be long-lasting, it may be a sign of a health problem.

At UVA Health Children’s, we have experience dealing with the problems that make sleep challenging. That includes physical, psychological, and neurological causes.

Diagnosing & Treating Sleep Disorders at UVA Health Children’s

The first thing we’ll do is talk to you and your child about what they’ve been experiencing. Some things your provider may ask about include:

  • How often is this happening?
  • Is your child having trouble staying awake during the day?
  • Do you worry they’ll stop breathing at night?
  • When did this start?

We’ll also do a physical exam. This can help us find other factors that might impact your child’s sleep. Things like larger-than-average tonsils can make it hard to breathe.

Sleep Logging

With some problems, especially ones that seem to come and go, we may ask you to keep a sleep log.

Sleep logs can help identify patterns. Your provider will talk to you about what specifically needs to be recorded based on your child’s condition.

Oxygen Monitoring

Overnight oxygen monitoring can help us decide if a full sleep study is needed. A lot of parents like to try this option first.

Pediatric Sleep Study

To see issues that only happen while your child is sleeping, we need to observe them while they’re sleeping. A pediatric sleep study allows us to watch your child’s breathing and brain activity.

There are 2 types of sleep studies we perform:

  • The first is an overnight test, called a polysomnogram. This test looks at how long a child sleeps during the night and if they often wake up.
  • The second is a test that runs during the day after the overnight test. The daytime test is a multiple sleep latency test. During the test, your child takes several short naps. We watch how quickly your child actually falls asleep and enters deep sleep.

Most parents are relieved to know that this testing isn’t painful. Your child will have soft, stretchy bands to help monitor breathing, and small metal discs that stick to their chest and head. Soft tubes will rest in front of their nose to monitor airflow, but that’s the only slightly uncomfortable part.

One parent can stay with your child through testing. It’s important that whoever stays follows your providers' guidelines about screen time and lights. This makes sure the testing data is accurate. Your doctor can give you more information.

Treatment for Pediatric Sleep Disorders

Depending on your child’s condition, many treatment options are available.

Sometimes, we can correct the problem with lifestyle changes or other simple changes (like a special pillow).

Some conditions are lifelong, and we’ll work to make sure we find a solution that works for life.

Sleep Conditions We Treat

  • Central Sleep Apnea
  • Confusion arousals
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Hypoventilation
  • Insomnia
  • Narcolepsy
  • Night Terrors
  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Sleep paralysis
  • Sleep talking
  • Sleepwalking

When a Sleeping Child Stops Breathing

Stephen Early, MD, discusses the causes and treatments of obstructive sleep apnea in children. View sleep apnea transcript.


Pediatric Sleep Disorder FAQ

Why do some kids develop sleep disorders?

While some sleep disorders have an underlying cause, others are harder to pin down. It may be as simple as family history. Narcolepsy, for instance, is a sleep condition that tends to run in families.

Other times, a sleep disorder is a symptom of a larger problem, like exposure to heavy metals.

We’ll look for any potential causes, but sometimes we won’t be able to spot the reason. That doesn’t mean we can’t improve things for your child right now.

Will it go away if I just wait?

Maybe. Many children grow out of sleep disorders.

But sleep is important for all aspects of health and development. A child who isn’t getting good sleep will have a hard time learning. They may also be more likely to get sick. Because of how important sleep is for childhood development, we recommend not waiting.

Do I need to tell my child’s school?

It’s up to you. But we do recommend it and can help you design a plan to meet their needs. These plans help teachers know the best way to accommodate their medical needs. This can include more days to complete homework, tests scheduled for their best hours, or being able to get up and walk around if they feel tired.