Insomnia in children

Posted on 6 February 2017

A GP explains it’s the lack of sleep-encouraging behaviour, rather than an underlying disease, that usually causes insomnia in children. The good news? Knowing this makes it easier to treat.

‘A lack of routine and our general modern lifestyle are the main causes of insomnia in children,’ says Dr Clive Landman, a GP at Medipark, Centurion. ‘Late-night television, stimulants and caffeine found in drinks and food, mobile phones and computer games are all playing their part in hindering good sleep behaviour.’

Children who do not sleep well may wake up too early in the morning and some may be hyperactive and aggressive, have a short attention span, be prone to making mistakes or having accidents and are less likely to co-operate with parents and teachers.

In general, insomnia either presents as a short-term or chronic problem. Short-term insomnia usually occurs for anything up to a few weeks and tend not be something parents should be too concerned about. Factors that could trigger this type of insomnia are usually sickness (such as the flu, an ear infection or having measles or mumps) and the effects of any medication the child is taking for the illness.

Long-term or chronic insomnia is more problematic, and parents are advised to seek medical advice if their child is struggling to sleep on more than three nights a week, or for a period longer than a month.

How routine can help

It is essential that parents initiate good sleep habits in children from the very beginning. A minimum of 10 hours of sleep is recommended for a three-year-old, for example, but this may include a two-hours afternoon nap and eight hours’ sleep at night. ‘This is quite manageable and more often than not children of this age are able to sleep well,’ says Dr Landman.

Sometimes a child of three or younger may take a morning and an afternoon nap and sleep for fewer hours at night. Once children are of a school-going age – around 6 to 7 – and usually stop napping during the day, parents should ensure that they are sleeping for eight and a half to nine hours at night.

Lifestyle choices

Children should be active, exercise during the day and eat healthy foods. At night the child should be physically fatigued and any brain stimuli such as music, television or games should be tapered down a few hours before bedtime. Read to your child or let them read when they are able to, then make sure the windows are closed, the curtains drawn and the lights switched off to promote sleep. The bedtime routine should be the same every night, even on weekends.

Medication is often the last resort to treat insomnia in children. Instead, simple practices within the home can be adopted.

Besides lifestyle, other factors that could trigger long-term insomnia include school stress, anxiety, depression and psychological or mental health disorders. Seek medical help or appropriate counselling if you suspect an underlying cause for your child’s insomnia.


In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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