Sleep Care

Narcolepsy in Children

Is your child falling asleep in school? Are they having trouble staying awake even when engaged in activities throughout the day?  These problems may be as simple as a need for a good night’s sleep, but could also be a sign of something more serious.  Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder categorized by excessive daytime sleepiness that affects roughly 1 in every 2,000 Americans. It is thought to be related to a disruption in an area of the brain that controls sleep and wakefulness, which may be due to a loss of a particular chemical in the brain called hypocretin. The exact rate of children and adolescents affected by this disorder is unknown, but recent studies suggest that 34% of adults with Narcolepsy experienced symptoms under the age of 15.


Children with Narcolepsy may experience constant sleepiness or have trouble staying awake during the day even when engaged in activities. They may fall asleep suddenly in unusual places or at inappropriate times. Other symptoms include sudden and substantial weight gain, cataplexy, a sudden brief loss of muscle control and sleep paralysis, the brief loss of muscle control upon falling asleep or waking up. Under sleep paralysis a child will be unable to speak or move even though they are fully aware of their surroundings.

Experts have begun to recognize that narcolepsy sometimes contributes to certain childhood behavioral problems, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and must be addressed before the behavioral problem can be resolved. If left undiagnosed and untreated, narcolepsy can pose special problems for children and adolescents, interfering with their psychological, social, and cognitive development and undermining their ability to succeed at school. Teachers and childcare providers should be educated on the child’s disorder as Narcolepsy can often be mistaken for laziness or lack of interest and ability.


Narcolepsy in children is often misdiagnosed as depression or other behavioral disorders. A sleep study may be necessary to determine if a child is narcoleptic. The time lapse between onset and diagnosis can be as long as 10 years according to some reports, so it is important that parents speak to a doctor should they suspect their child has a sleep disorder. Narcolepsy may be seen in more than one person in the family and is usually not recognized until the ages of 15-25.

While there is no cure for Narcolepsy, children with this disorder usually respond well to traditional treatments used on adults. These include medications such as Modafinil, which promotes wakefulness, and regularly scheduled naps following a strict sleep/wake schedule. For more on typical narcolepsy treatments visit the Narcolepsy section.

Since the symptoms of narcolepsy can often cause emotional stress, especially in children, counseling is sometimes appropriate to help an individual adjust to a treatment schedule and living with narcolepsy. However, when done properly treatments can be very successful especially if caught early, allowing children with narcolepsy to live very normal and productive lives.

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