Persistent insomnia (sleeplessness)  in children can be caused by a number of factors and should be taken seriously as children are known for being able to sleep well compared to adults. Child insomnia varies in definition depending on the age group, pattern of sleeplessness and associated signs and symptoms of insomnia. Typically infants require approximately 14 hours (or more) of sleep per day with the duration reducing with age. Toddlers and young children may function well on 10 to 12 hours of sleep while teens require about 8 to 10 hours. This is significantly longer than adults who can function on 6 to 7 hours of sleep per day. One or two nights of sleeplessness in children is not usually serious but persistent insomnia or bouts of insomnia should be investigated for underlying causes. Child insomnia may be accompanied by other symptoms including crying,  restlessness and temper tantrums (infants and toddlers with insomnia), aches and pains (children and adolescents with insomnia) or depression, anxiety and irritability (teens with insomnia).

It is important to identify the stage of sleep disturbance or sleeplessness in childhood insomnia, either a difficulty falling asleep, maintaining sleep or repeated disturbances while asleep.

Common Causes of Children Insomnia

The common causes of insomnia in children is listed along with associated signs, symptoms and contributing factors.

  • Injury or physical trauma – aches and pain.
  • Teething – gnawing and biting on objects, fever, skin rash, restlessness and irritability.
  • Nightmares and bad dreams – afraid of sleeping.
  • Difficulty breathing – airway obstruction including nasal blockage, sinusitis or hay fever;  asthma, bronchitis or pneumonia.
  • Acute infections and childhood diseases – common cold, influenza (‘flu’), ‘stomach flu‘, measles, mumps, chickenpox.
  • Itchy skin – eczema, psoriasis, hives, skin rash, sunburn (pain and burning), burns, nappy (diaper) rash.
  • Stimulants in the diet or environment – caffeine in coffee, sodas; taurine in energy drinks; nicotine through tobacco smoke inhalation.
  • Excessive intake of high glycemic index (GI) foods – associated with “sugar highs” in children.
  • Gastrointestinal disturbancesexcessive gas and bloating, tummy cramps and infantile colic, diarrhea, constipation.
  • Stress, abuse or mental and emotional trauma.
  • Neurological, psychological, psychiatric disorders – depression, anxiety, epilepsy, autism.
  • Side effects of certain drugs
  • Substance abusealcohol abuse or drug usage in teens.
  • Growing pains‘ – supposed aches and pains caused by bone growth in young children although its existence has never been proven.

Child insomnia should be taken seriously if the condition is persisting and it is essential to identify the causative factor. Bouts of sleeplessness in children may affect both daily functioning, physical growth, mental development (cognitive, intellectual) and social interaction.

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Article reviewed by Dr. Greg. Last updated on August 3, 2013