Prev NEXT  


How to Help a Child Who Is Having Trouble Falling Asleep

Treating Childhood Sleep Disorders

Treating childhood sleep disorders is a common parental duty. What child hasn't heard monsters under the bed? While some sleep disorders can be easily resolved, others may require more time and effort to treat. Here are a few of the most common sleep problems among children.

Sleepwalking in Children

Sleepwalking in children is extremely common because their sleep is so deep. When something happens to arouse them in the night, the part of their brain responsible for waking them cannot easily overcome the part responsible for sleep. The result is a state in which the child is partly awake and partly asleep.


Children sleepwalk with their eyes open and can see objects around them. But, they may misinterpret what they see. A window might look like a door, and the child might attempt to climb out. While children are usually able to go up and down stairs while sleepwalking, they may do so clumsily, and a fall could result. Therefore, if your child sleepwalks, it's important to protect her by locking windows, blocking stairways (with a safety gate, for example), and removing hazardous objects from her immediate vicinity.

Children who walk in their sleep generally do not need medical attention. Most children outgrow the problem by early adolescence. Parents need only know how to handle sleepwalking episodes when they do occur. Contrary to popular belief, waking a sleepwalking child is not dangerous. But, a child who awakens suddenly in strange surroundings may become frightened and confused. It is usually not necessary to wake a child who is sleepwalking. Most times, you will be able to gently take your child by the hand and lead her back to bed. Be persistent but not forceful or confrontational. The child will probably have no memory of the episode in the morning.

Night Terrors

As with sleepwalking, night terrors occur when a child is in deep sleep. The child screams loudly, disturbing any nearby sleepers. At times, the child may even dash out of bed screaming. The techniques for handling night terrors are the same as for coping with sleepwalking: Protect the child from danger, carry on as few exchanges as possible, and guide the child back to bed. Don't ask the child to tell you why he is screaming or carrying on: He doesn't know, often cannot answer at all, and will just get more agitated if you try to arouse him from this state.

Parents may worry that something is wrong with a child who experiences night terrors. Unless the terrors occur frequently, this is generally not the case. Night terrors are more common in children younger than five, and in most cases, eventually cease without treatment. If your child experiences a night terror, simply go to him, rub his back, offer gentle words of assurance, and guide him back to bed. He will not remember the episode in the morning. You can return to sleep knowing night terrors are fairly common and, unless they occur frequently, do not require medical attention.


Nightmares are scary dreams that can wake your child and leave her upset and in need of comfort. After a nightmare, she may be afraid of going back to sleep or being left alone. She is not yet able to tell the difference between a dream and reality and may fear that what she saw in her dream will actually happen. Knowing this, the best thing you can do for a child awakened by a nightmare is to comfort her -- hold her, stroke her hair, reassure her, perhaps even turn on a light to reinforce the difference between her nightmare and reality. Try to be patient: It may take a while for her to fall back to sleep, and she may need the reassurance of your presence until she does.

Nightmares are often confused with night terrors, but they are not the same. Night terrors usually occur during the first couple of hours of sleep. The child never fully awakens during a night terror, so she is likely to fall back asleep easily once it's over and won't remember it the next day. In contrast, nightmares typically occur after a child has been asleep for several hours. The nightmare wakes the child, so she is likely to need comforting and may have trouble falling back to sleep.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


Virgil D. Wooten, M.D., is the medical director of the TriHealth Sleep Centers at Good Samaritan and Bethesda North hospitals in Cincinnati. He is also a diplomat of the American Board of Sleep Medicine, a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and a consultant, writer, and speaker on sleep-related subjects. Dr. Wooten has more than 25 years of research, clinical and teaching experience.