Children experience insomnia differently than adults, sleep expert says

Pediatric insomnia should be taken seriously to help avoid the issue from worsening in adulthood.

Rita Garcia Image
Thursday, October 12, 2023
Children experience insomnia differently than adults
Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that looks different in children than adults. With early intervention, you can help your child from becoming an adult with insomnia.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Insomnia is one of the most common sleep disorders, with an estimated effect on 30% of the general population.

Dr. Candice Alfano, a sleep researcher and clinician at the University of Houston, says the symptoms that show up in children are different than we typically see in adults.

"They don't tend to just lie in bed for long periods not being able to sleep," Dr. Alfano said. "Sometimes they get out of bed. They need another drink of water. They need to tell you something, or they have difficulty sleeping alone."

Dr. Alfano says there are no FDA-approved medications for sleep disorders in children. That's why it's so important for parents to get to the bottom of "why" their child can't sleep.

"The reason children have insomnia varies tremendously," Dr. Alfano said. "For some kids, it might be extreme nighttime fears, you know, typical stuff, monsters under the bed. That has to be addressed. For other kids, it might relate to separation anxiety."

Dr. Alfano says once parents get to the bottom of what's causing the insomnia, behavioral interventions or treatment can happen.

Our expert suggests trying things like stressing the importance of sleep and enforcing staying in bed throughout the night. "Early intervention is really important, and I think a lot of time parents think 'All kids struggle with sleep, it will just get better on its own.' But what we know is that in many cases, it doesn't, and we know that children with insomnia go on to be adults with insomnia," Dr. Alfano said.

Research shows leaving insomnia untreated can lead to bigger risks of developing things like depression, anxiety and other mental health problems. If sleep problems persist, longer than three months, Dr. Alfano says it's time to see a doctor.