Baby Sleep Disorders

Author Name: Heidi Holvoet, PhD

Apnea and night terrors are the 2 primary baby sleep disorders to be aware of. They are rarer than the typical behavioral problems we know (learning to self soothe and stay asleep) but need your extra attention.

Narcolepsy (extreme daytime sleepiness) is a third primary disorder that can start in early infancy [1] , [2] but it is much rarer still.

When is it normal and when is it a disorder?

If your baby or toddler has huge difficulties sleeping, you may start thinking of a true disorder . That's a natural reaction, and it's good to follow your instincts in these cases.

If you worry, don't hesitate to talk to your doctor or pediatrician about it.

Don't be surprised though if they are not too keen on diagnosing a disorder , especially if your baby is very young. You may need to contact your nearest pediatric sleep center for a dedicated study.

Either way, both for you and for the doctors, the first question to expect will always be "is it a true disorder or is it just a normal baby issue?"

I know all too well how daunting just a normal issue can be. But to get the right treatment, it's important to see the difference.

It's good to know that:

  • Even very disruptive issues - such as sleeping only a couple of hours each day, waking up every hour and not being able to self settle - are almost always still normal.

    Pediatricians call these issues behavioral problems . The solution is in guiding your child consistently and patiently, for example with the techniques discussed throughout this website.

    These behavioral problems can be quite extreme, in which none of even the best practice guidelines seem to help. Dedicated help in a specialized pediatric center can then also be necessary.

    Also, never hesitate to ask me about baby sleep disorders whenever you're in doubt.
  • There are basically 3 disorders that babies and toddlers can have. They each have rather clear symptoms so you should be able to spot them quite well.

Three baby sleep disorders to look out for

Night terrors in babies and toddlers

Night terrors are not dreams: it's when a child seemingly wakes up bewildered, often screams and seems panicky but is not really awake.

It's a typical toddler and older child thing, but also babies under 1 year old can have it. It can be scary and disturbing, especially as a parent but baby usually hardly notices and is not harmed or affected.

See the detailed night terrors in babies page for how to recognize and how to avoid the screaming awakenings.

Sleep apnea in babies and toddlers

Central or Obstructive Apnea is when child has abnormally long breathing pauses, longer than 20 seconds. She'll wake up gasping for breath, may be screaming or even turn blue.

Central Apnea is the most common form in babies until 1 year old. The more typical toddler and child form of apnea is called Obstructive Apnea (OSA).

Start at the apnea symptoms pages for risk factors, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment.


Narcolepsy is a serious disorder most of us only know from adults. The main symptoms is irresistible sleepiness during the day.

Luckily very very rare in babies and children, studies have shown early infancy signs of narcolepsy. [1] , [2]

Do talk to your doctor if you are worried about any of the baby sleep disorders, and contact me if you want to discuss your concerns.

Article Author: Heidi Holvoet, PhD - Founder, senior sleep consultant

Heidi Holvoet, PhD

Heidi Holvoet, PhD, is the founder of the Baby Sleep Advice website and movement, an award-winning author, baby & toddler sleep consultant with 15+ years experience as well as a certified lactation counselor.

Over the years, Heidi has received several awards inluding a Mom's Choice Award (MCA) and National Parenting Awards (NAPPA) for her Baby Sleep Advice website, programs and books. Also, Baby Sleep Advice was awarded "Most Trusted Infant's Sleep Solutions Company 2023" in the Benelux Enterprise Awards 2023.

Heidi continually conducts personal research and participates in continued education and in that way stays up to date with current scientific and pyschosocial infant care.

Association of Professional Sleep Consultants

She is also a member of the Association of Professional Sleep Consultants of which she was one of the earliest contributors. She obtained her PhD degree in physics at the University of Ghent in Belgium.

Heidi is passionate about helping babies and their parents sleep more and better, with her trademark approach that has been proven and praised time and again by parents worldwide to be effective and truly no-tears. Respect for you as a parent and your baby, is at the heart of Heidi's warm and kind support. Her approach always keeps in mind a baby's needs and abilities at any given age, is based on pediatric science and the most up to date knowledge in infant care and sleep science.

As well as the award-winning baby sleep programs, Heidi offers popular 1:1 consults and easy-access 30-minute SOS Sleep sessions.


[1] Pediatric narcolepsy: complexities of diagnosis Hood BM, Harbord MG. J Paediatr Child Health. 2002 Dec;38(6):618-21.

[2] Infancy Onset of Symptoms of Narcolepsy in a Child Witmans, M. B., Kirk, V. G., doi: 10.1177/000992280204100809 CLIN PEDIATR October 2002 vol. 41 no. 8 609-612.