What is narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy is a chronic brain disorder that causes severe daytime sleepiness. Some people with narcolepsy may also have sleep attacks that last about 15-30 minutes and that can happen at any time.


Excessive daytime sleepiness is the most common symptom of narcolepsy. It is usually most severe when the child is not active.

Other symptoms of narcolepsy can include:

  • cataplexy — a sudden episode of muscle weakness while awake that usually begins with muscle weakness in the face and neck and spreads to muscles of the body and limbs
  • memory issues, attention problems, hyperactivity or behavior problems
  • vivid dreams or nightmares
  • hallucinations when falling asleep or waking up
  • sleep paralysis (the body feels paralyzed or heavy after sleep)
  • waking often during the night
  • walking or talking in sleep
  • weight gain


To diagnose narcolepsy, your child’s doctor may request an overnight sleep study (polysomnogram) in a sleep lab to measure brain waves, eye movements, breathing, oxygen levels, leg movements, and heart rate and rhythm. Your child may also have a daytime nap study or mean sleep latency test to measure sleepiness levels during the day.


Treatment options for narcolepsy include sleep schedule changes and taking medication to reduce sleepiness during the day. Some children may also need to take medication to help them stay asleep at night.

Learn more about Pediatric Pulmonology, Allergy, Immunology and Sleep services at Boston Children’s Health Physicians.