Better Me

Wiggles? Growing Pains? Your Child May Have Restless Leg Syndrome

There are three things every kid loves to hate: vegetables, sharing and bedtime. 

Parents must lay the rules down from time to time. But, for some kids, lying still in bed is especially difficult. 

Andrew Valenzuela, MD, specializes in pediatric sleep medicine with Banner Children's. He offered a few key insights to parents who are wondering if their kid’s “wiggles” may actually be a sleep disorder called restless leg syndrome (RLS), also known as Willis-Ekbom disease. He said, “the real key to identifying restless leg syndrome is the timing, the discomfort, and determining ways to relieve the symptoms.”

Symptoms of restless leg syndrome

Bad dreams can happen to any kid, but if your child complains about the following symptoms, there could be more at play.

  • They have discomfort in their limbs or feel unpleasant sensations in their legs.
  • Symptoms are resolved temporarily with movement or light massage.
  • Your child is kicking while they are asleep, even waking themselves up.
  • They take longer to fall asleep because they can’t stop moving.
  • An anxious movement that seems to worsen at night.
  • Persistent sensations that include aching or itchiness.
  • Sleepiness during the day due to poor nighttime sleep.

How to diagnose children vs. adults

Children have a much harder time describing their symptoms, especially if they have been having them for as long as they can remember. However, Dr. Valenzuela noted that parents may be able to provide more insight than they realize. 

Think back on the last few times your child woke you up. If a quick leg massage helps your child fall back and stay asleep, then RLS is a possibility. If a drink of water or a short nighttime story gets them snoozing again, RLS may not be to blame. Pediatric sleep specialists know the right questions to ask you and your child. They can help you work through the hard-to-see signs and differentiate between temporary lookalike causes such as growing pains.

What ages can be affected by restless leg syndrome?

“There is no minimum age for RLS,” said Dr. Valenzuela. “In fact, one of the main causes of RLS is iron deficiency, which can appear in anyone and at any age.” Symptoms of RLS can worsen for children with developmental disorders like autism. So early detection is key to helping a child sleep safely and comfortably over time.

Helping your child sleep tonight

Safe sleep is so important for your kiddo’s development. And if they aren’t resting, neither are you. When RLS symptoms appear, you need in-the-moment solutions while you work through long-term treatments. Dr. Valenzuela suggested the following options if your kid is uncomfortable lying still.

  • Move and lightly massage their legs.
  • Try a weighted blanket.
  • Go for a quick stroll around the room or down the hall.
  • Help your child do a few stretches.

Treatments for restless leg syndrome

If the temporary solutions listed above aren’t enough to get your child restful sleep, long-term tips and treatments may be needed. In some cases, medication may be recommended. Talk with their pediatrician or sleep expert to decide on an approach that combines good habits with other necessary treatments.

Go to bed for sleep only. Too much time lying or sitting still will lead to worsened symptoms. Especially before bed, avoid long periods sitting watching TV, playing video games or reading in a sleeping position.

Avoid caffeine. If it gives you the jitters, it will make your child’s symptoms worse. Coffee, tea, soda, candy and some medications should be avoided for little ones struggling with RLS. The connection between diet and sleep is stronger than many realize.

Make time for light exercise. Intense exercise before bed may lead to more leg pain. But light exercise in the evening can offer relief for antsy legs come bedtime.

Check iron levels. “One of the most common causes of RLS in children and adults is low iron levels,” Dr. Valenzuela explained. “Finding the deficiency and addressing the cause may even do away with your child’s RLS symptoms for good.”

Addressing related conditions. Many other factors could be contributing to your little one’s RLS symptoms and costing them a visit from the Sandman. ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), depression, poor kidney function, sleep apnea, and anxiety can all contribute to RLS in children. For many, resolving one factor can help the others to be less severe.

Explore medications. Depending on the root cause of the RLS symptoms, medications may help to give relief. Always work with your doctor to find a medical solution that is safe and effective for your child.

You deserve some R&R

And so do your kids. If you can relate to any of the signs listed above and you’ve tried the at-home treatments to little avail, it may be time to speak with an expert. Life for parents and kids can be exhausting even without difficulty sleeping. Don’t wait long to find your solution and get back to catching those z’s.

Need help treating restless leg syndrome in children?

Schedule an appointment with a primary care provider.
Schedule an appointment with a pediatric sleep specialist.

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