Why Do Some Children Move a Lot While They Sleep?

Some babies and children move a lot while they sleep because their sleep is still immature. Others may have a problem. Learn more.
Why Do Some Children Move a Lot While They Sleep?

Last update: 20 February, 2022

Some infants wake up in the same place and in the same position in which they went to bed. Others, on the other hand, don’t stop moving all night long. Children who move a lot while they sleep often worry their parents, as in the morning, they find them with their feet on their pillow. Or, in the case of co-sleeping, parents may suffer from the kicking and restlessness of their little one in their bed. However, there’s no need to take this as a sign of something negative.

Every child is different and just like the level of daytime activity, nighttime movement also differs from one case to another. This may be related to their young age and brain immaturity. However, in some cases, it’s necessary to consult a pediatrician, and we’ll tell you when to do so.

Why do babies and children move a lot during sleep?

Tired parents sleeping while their baby plays in the middle of their bed.

First of all, you should know that it’s totally normal for your little one to move a lot while they sleep, change positions, move around the crib or bed, or seem restless. This is because their sleep is different from that of adults.

Every night, mature humans go through several sleep cycles of about 100 minutes, which go through 4 non-REM sleep phases and one REM phase. Therefore, we tend to sleep deeply and for long periods of time.

In contrast, young infants have sleep cycles of about 50 minutes in length, which are composed of only two phases: One of REM sleep and one of slow sleep. Therefore, their rest periods are shorter and lighter, they spend more time in light, stimuli-responsive sleep, and are more prone to body movements.

In addition, at the end of each sleep cycle, adults have micro-awakenings that we hardly notice. We simply go back to sleep and the next day we don’t remember them. But infants are more aware of them and at these times, they may wake up and look for their attachment figure in order to fall back to sleep.

At around six months of age, babies begin to acquire the remaining sleep phases, but adapting to this new pattern takes time. Therefore, micro awakenings continue to exist and nightmares or night terrors may be added. All this makes sleep an even more agitated state, which justifies the fact that during the first two years of life, children move a lot while they sleep.

Restless legs syndrome

In a minority of cases, it’s possible to associate nocturnal agitation with a neurological disorder known as restless legs syndrome (RLS) or Willis-Ekbom disease. Only 2% of the child population is affected by this condition and, in general, there’s a positive family history.

The main symptoms of RLS include a burning, tingling, or aching sensation in the extremities when resting for a prolonged period of time. This improves with movement, so the child often moves continuously around the bed or crib, is restless, and may stretch and bend their legs in bursts.

It’s not easy to identify RLS in very young children, as they can’t explain what they feel when they lie down. However, their pediatrician can arrive at this diagnosis and recommend a series of guidelines to improve the symptomatology.

What to do with babies and children who move a lot while they sleep?

A baby girl cosleeping with her mom.

As you can see, babies and children can move a lot while they sleep due to immature sleep patterns, nightmares, or restless legs syndrome. In any case, there are some guidelines that parents can follow to help them get a good night’s rest:

  • Make sure that children aren’t overtired at bedtime. So, in the case of babies, try to put them to bed at the first signs of sleepiness. In the case of children, avoid excessive activity during the day or opt for daytime naps.
  • Establish routines that help little ones to have good sleeping habits. In this sense, make sure that the environmental conditions of the bedroom are appropriate.
  • Consider the convenience of co-sleeping. This practice can prevent the baby from waking up during micro awakenings, as they’ll feel close to their attachment figures.
  • In the case of RLS, it may be advisable to resort to physiotherapy and iron supplementation to alleviate symptoms. In any case, it’s up to the medical professional to make the decision to prescribe treatment.

To determine if medical attention is required, you should observe whether your child’s nighttime restlessness is preventing them from getting adequate rest. Pay attention to their state during the day: Whether they’re active or drowsy, whether they’re irritable or not, and whether they’re able to function adequately in their daily activities. If their rest is being affected, don’t hesitate to consult a professional to identify the cause.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.