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Sleep disturbances are slightly different than sleep problems. Whereas sleep problems deal more with the quality and physiology of a child’s sleep, sleep disturbances occur when a child’s brain activity during sleep somehow becomes misaligned, leading to unique behaviors during sleep.

Types of Sleep Disturbances

There are several types of child sleep disturbances that we’ll discuss in this chapter:

  1. Children talking in their sleep
  2. Sleepwalking in children
  3. Nightmares
  4. Night terrors
  5. Sleep paralysis & nightmare visits

What causes sleep disturbances in children?

Sleep is a sequence. When we go to sleep, several things happen in our brain at once. Certain switches occur which bring consciousness offline, others limit our movement, other brain areas begin the process of dreaming and consolidating information, and so on. Imagine it like an intricate dance performed by a series of dancers. When all the dancers are in sync, a flawless sequence emerges. But if one dancer were to suddenly start running haphazardly in circles flailing their arms, the whole routine would be thrown off.

Sleep disturbances occur when one or more of these sleep sequences misfires or gets out of whack. The normal suppression of movement we experience during sleep lapses, and so a child sleepwalks. Or a person wakes up and regains consciousness while their brain is still inhibiting movement, which results in sleep paralysis.

Sleep disturbances caused by sleep disorders

Sleep disturbances can also be caused by physical ailments such as illness or other sleep problems. For example, sleep scientists are beginning to find that nightmares can be caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain during sleep. Children and adults with sleep apnea tend to have more nightmares than other people, and some doctors have even speculated that nightmares could be the mind’s way of stirring itself awake when oxygen levels get too low.

Stress can also cause sleep disturbances, and there are any number of things which could cause a child stress.


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