Clinical Consult: Pediatric sleep disorders

yawning baby childhood sleep disorders

Though highly prevalent, pediatric sleep problems (e.g., snoring, apneas, restless sleep, nighttime awakenings, excessive daytime sleepiness, insomnia, nightmares, night terrors) tend to be under-diagnosed in the primary care setting. Sleep problems may only come to clinical attention if parents notice these symptoms or if these are significant. In addition, beyond the infant and toddler years, many parents don’t think to mention sleep disturbances during office visits.

However, a 2010 study of children 0 to 18 years in a large primary care network found that only 3.7 percent had an ICD-9 diagnosis of a sleep disorder, much lower than the prevalence of sleep disorders suggested by epidemiologic studies. Snoring alone, for example, has a reported prevalence as high as 10 to 15 percent, while insomnia is as high as 5 to 20 percent.

In practice, time constraints may prevent primary care physicians (PCPs) from taking a detailed sleep history during a well visit. However, clinicians should consider asking about disordered sleep when children have difficulty concentrating or display changes in academic performance, behavior or mood, as many times children with sleep disordered breathing in particular can present with ADHD-like symptoms (often leading to a misdiagnosis of ADHD). The history should include questions about snoring and breathing during sleep, daytime sleepiness, sleep hygiene and the child’s sleep schedule.

Sleep disorders by age

Behavioral sleep disorders predominate in early childhood: difficulty in falling and staying asleep without a parent being present, for example, or difficulties setting and enforcing limits around bedtime routines and bedtime resistance.

amount of sleep children sleep disordersThese can be addressed with behavioral interventions, such as a consistent bedtime routine, leaving the room while a child is still awake, and introducing schedule modifications including a regular schedule for naps and nighttime sleep. With older children, a reward system for preferred sleep behaviors can be effective. Sometimes parents expect young children to sleep for unrealistic lengths of time. In cases such as these, setting a later bedtime—when the child is truly sleepy—can prove effective.

In older children, the most common problem is insufficient sleep. The majority of teens get fewer than the recommended 8.5 to nine hours because of poor sleep hygiene, playing computer games and texting close to bedtime—activities that rev up the brain. Many teens develop circadian phase delays, staying up late on weeknights and even later on weekends (coupled with sleeping several hours beyond their usual wake-up time), leaving them significantly jet-lagged when Monday morning rolls around.

Sleep-disordered breathing

Sleep-disordered breathing, mostly commonly obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), peaks between the ages 2 and 6 (when the tonsils and adenoids are at their largest size relative to the upper airway size), and then again during adolescence, often concurrent with risk for overweight and obesity.

The prevalence of OSA is up to 3 to 4 percent in all children and even higher in children with low muscle tone, craniofacial abnormalities, neuromuscular disorders, certain chromosomal variants like Down syndrome or who are obese. Common signs and symptoms of OSA include:

  • snoring
  • witnessed pauses in breathing
  • gasping or snorting
  • mouth breathing

Night sweats, sleeping with the neck hyperextended and reemergence of bedwetting (due to increased nighttime urine production) also can be signs of OSA.

OSA leads to fragmented sleep and is associated with excessive daytime sleepiness in older children. Younger children tend to present more commonly with symptoms of attentional deficit or hyperactivity. An estimated 25 percent of children with ADHD have OSA, and the attention and behavioral symptoms often improve after the OSA is treated. When there is clinical concern for OSA, an overnight sleep study is the diagnostic gold standard.

The first line of therapy for OSA is usually removal of the tonsils and adenoids. Nasal steroids such as montelukast are sometimes used as well in milder cases. Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), if the child can tolerate it, is usually the next treatment choice for OSA, and it can dramatically improve daytime symptoms. CPAP, too, is palliative rather than curative. The optimal pressure settings can change over time, requiring adjustments. Other treatment options include orthodontic interventions such as maxillary expansion, and weight loss as a long-term strategy.

Umakanath KhatwaOther, less common medical causes of disordered sleep include restless legs syndrome and narcolepsy.

Umakanth Khatwa, MD, is director of the Sleep Laboratories in Boston Children’s Hospital’s Sleep Center and an instructor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.


To refer a patient for a sleep evaluation or learn more about our approach to managing sleep disorders, contact the Boston Children’s Sleep Center.