Sleep is vital for the health of each of us, but it’s of particular importance for kids who are still growing and developing. And while adults can deprive themselves of a few hours of sleep from time to time, kids should have a well-established sleeping routine and get as much rest as possible.
But children are super energetic, so they often think of sleep as a waste of time, which is why they may not get enough. And while occasional deviations from good sleep habits can’t harm kids, it’s of utmost importance to understand when sleep deprivation threatens to become a health problem.
Consequences of Poor Sleep in Children
While enough rest enables children to have a good memory, focus, and mood, and therefore easier acquisition of good habits, lack of sleep leads to the opposite. This is because it’s closely related to anxiety, which is one of the most severe consequences of poor sleep in children.
And since a sleep-deprived child is always tired and with poor focus, their ability to learn and remember is affected. If this problem occurs during the phase of enhanced cognitive development, these deficiencies can’t be compensated for later.
Kids who don’t have good quality sleep can also develop bad eating habits. Eventually, this can disturb the hormone leptin, which is in charge of appetite control. This can lead to appetite disorders or excessive body weight, even in preschoolers. Additionally, lack of sleep in the first years of life can affect the looks of your child.
How to Know Your Child Has Sleep Issues
Long-term sleep problems will leave noticeable consequences for your child. So here are common physical and behavior-based symptoms:
- Dark circles under the eyes
- Dry and pale skin
- Daytime sleepiness or hyperactivity
- Difficulty waking up or difficulty falling asleep
- Refusing to sleep in their beds
- Refusing to sleep without parents/toys
- Poor academic performance
Some symptoms of sleep disorders are subtle, and how they will manifest depends on the age and character of the child. And while preschoolers and teens can complain about discomfort and pain, pay special attention to babies and toddlers. They still can’t say what’s bothering them.
Also, it’s necessary to distinguish occasional disruptions that can disturb your kid’s sleep from recurring disturbances. For example, they could be excited about an upcoming event, which is a temporary disruption.
But kids can refuse to go to bed for no particular reason. And they might show signs of unusual behavior, like waking up often at night. If that happens, try to find the cause and start treatment as soon as possible.
Types of Sleep Disorders in Children
There are many medically proven sleep disorders that children can experience. Some of them are temporary and go away after a while. Others, in the most severe cases, require medication and even hospitalization.
Most kids snore at some point, but they don’t do that with the same intensity. If it happens from time to time, it usually has something to do with acute respiratory problems. But if it persists, the reasons are physical obstacles such as enlarged tonsils or third tonsil issues.
In the latter case, kids have a specific, sunken facial appearance, constantly open mouth, and nasal speech. Tonsil problems can manifest as snoring, breathing interruptions that can last for a few seconds, or even suffocation.
Sleep apnea can occur as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), central sleep apnea (CSA), or a combination of both types.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
As its name suggests, OSA obstructs your kid’s upper airways. It usually appears when a physical obstacle in the respiratory system prevents normal airflow. In most cases, these are enlarged or swollen tonsils or loose mucosa between the nose and throat.
This sleep disorder is prevalent in children who have a problem with excessive weight. If not treated in time, it can eventually cause more serious respiratory problems and even heart problems.
Central Sleep Apnea
This sleep apnea occurs less often than OSA. In this disorder, the problem isn’t physical but neurological. Breathing stops due to poor communication between the central nervous system and the respiratory organs.
For some reason, the brain doesn’t send signals to breathe in and out during sleep. These disturbances most often occur due to other neurological diseases that interfere with the work of the breathing center in the brain.
CSA occurs in prematurely born kids or those with cerebral palsy. It’s also spotted after brain injuries, the appearance of a brain mass, and the use of certain drugs.
Many parents can confuse children’s insomnia with hyperactivity or excitement. Sure, tossing and turning in bed, lying awake, or having a light sleep is common in kids, especially when they’re super excited. And if it’s just an occasional deviation from a regular sleep pattern, there’s nothing to worry about.
However, if your kid can’t fall asleep for days or wakes up often during the night, whining and crying, you can suspect insomnia. Depending on the kid, all stress, fear, or the events from the day before can be manifested through restless sleep.
Insomnia can occur in kids of all ages, and they usually overgrow it. But until then, you must find a way to keep it under control.
Unlike insomnia, hypersomnia isn’t a lack, but an excess of sleep. It sounds strange, but it’s actually a medical explanation for excessive sleepiness during the day, fatigue after a long sleep, taking more naps than usual, etc.
Hypersomnia is most often a companion of sleep apnea because children try to compensate for the lack of night’s rest during the day. Thus, they can fall asleep in unusual places, like school or a car. And when they wake up, they feel disoriented.
This condition can occur due to illness and taking some medications. It’s also common in teenagers who are anxious or sad. They drift to sleep whenever they have a problem.
Parasomnia is a sleep disorder in kids that manifests as activating their physiological system at an inappropriate time, usually at night. At some point, the brain just activates the autonomic nervous system, motor system, or cognitive processes. That triggers sleep interruptions, and children can wake fully or partially.
During a parasomnia episode, some motor functions are awake while the brain is still sleeping. That’s why people suffering from this sleep disorder don’t remember their night activities in the morning.
Nightmares and Night Fears
A frequent form of parasomnia in kids is night terrors and nightmares. These are common arousal disorders in toddlers and preschoolers. They seem frightening, but they’re usually harmless.
When experiencing night fears, kids are very upset. And if they start screaming in the middle of the night, soothing is tricky. Although they seem to be awake and conscious, they’re still in a deep sleep.
Since your kid isn’t awake, you can’t calm them down easily. They’re upset because they’re unaware of their surroundings but still under the impression of a bad dream. For example, if kids dream about monsters attacking them, they may fight with the person who tries to calm them down.
Sleepwalking is another common form of parasomnia. It manifests as sudden partial awakening, usually in the first hours of night sleep. Then, your kid can get out of bed, walk around the room, and even do some meaningful activities like using household appliances or eating.
These episodes can last from a few minutes to half an hour. There’s a myth that you shouldn’t wake up or even touch a sleepwalker, but there’s no scientific proof for that. If your kid doesn’t do anything risky, just follow them until they get back to bed. Or wake them up gently since they’ll probably be confused and disoriented.
But if your child is about to do something risky, like plugging in an appliance or going out on the terrace, you should react and thus prevent their injuries and damage. In any case, you have to keep an eye on your little sleepwalker.
Apart from that, sleepwalking needs no specific treatment. At some point, your kids will most likely outgrow it. Treatment is possibly necessary if this sleep disorder is combined with sleep apnea or hypersomnia.
Restless Leg Syndrome
Some kids can’t be still even when they sleep, but sometimes that’s not because of their hyperactivity but of restless legs syndrome (RLS). This neurological disorder represents an involuntary need to move the legs, especially during sleep.
Kids will describe this need as mild tingling and tickling or as if something is going up their legs. And it gets worse during rest time. Medicine still doesn’t know the exact causes, but some previous research points to low iron and folate levels as RLS triggers. Also, it’s known that RLS can result from diseases such as diabetes or peripheral nerve damage.
Due to poor knowledge of the causes of this sleep disorder, you can’t be quite sure that your kid suffers from it. So, if in doubt, consult a doctor. There are neurological tests that can detect RLS and the degree of its complexity. Based on that, the doctor will proceed with the treatment.
How to Treat Sleep Disorders in Children
Children of different ages have different sleep needs, but they should adhere to some sleep patterns and schedules. If your little one deviates from these and obviously lacks sleep, you must assess the problem and start treatment.
Depending on what your kid is suffering from, the treatments will vary. The first step is to find out the cause of the sleep disturbance. Sometimes it’ll be possible with a simple talk and observation, but your little ones might need professional help with severe sleep disorders.
Talk to Your Kids
Unless it’s about babies, it’s possible to find out what’s bothering your kid’s sleep with talk. Stress in children is a common trigger of sleep issues, followed by fears and excitement. So try to talk to them about possible problems that burden them.
Adjust the conversation to the child’s age. Encourage them to talk to you and show understanding of their fears and concerns. Don’t be harsh, and arm yourself with patience until you get to the meat of the matter.
For example, maybe your little ones are afraid to sleep alone. Then, you should say that you understand their fear and gradually work on their independence.
Remove Triggers of Poor Sleep
By talking to your youngsters, you can get to the core of the problem and offer a solution. For example, if your child is afraid of the dark, leave the night light on and the door open. Or if they can’t sleep because of outside noise or light, get blinders that provide good sound insulation.
In case of fear of being alone, you can help the toddler by being there until they fall asleep. Let them explain their fears, although they’re often unfounded (monsters under the bed, for example). Offer them a comfort toy, soothe them with kind words, and reward their bravery.
If it’s stress related to school or friends, encourage your kid to face it. Also, if your child is anxious, you can visit a psychologist. But you shouldn’t force that; it’s important that the kid is aware of the problem and accepts help.
Sleep training doesn’t apply only to babies but can also help older children adopt healthy sleeping habits. The goal is to let kids learn how to self-soothe, manage initial problems causing sleep disturbance, and eventually fall asleep alone.
This method requires a lot of effort and patience. Some kids will have a hard time separating from their parents, while others will accept it more easily.
You can try this:
- Sit next to your child in bed for a few days.
- Then, sit on the chair next to the bed.
- After a few days, move the chair away from the bed.
- Next, place a chair in front of the door.
- Finally, tuck the little one into bed, possibly read them a story or hug them, and leave the room.
All the mentioned steps can take a day, two, or even a few weeks. You can have a bedtime routine, but your little ones must learn not to rely on you when falling asleep. Sleep independence is necessary, so don’t give up if your little one shows resistance.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
When the previous methods don’t give results, or your kid’s sleep disorder is more complex, it’s time for professional help. And cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as CBT-I, is one of the first treatments for childhood insomnia.
The therapy’s point is to identify the cause of the sleep problem and act on it. That makes it a better solution than medications, which only treat the effect. CBT-I helps children learn to manage anxiety and adopt healthy sleep habits.
Also, this therapy supports parents in establishing good sleep patterns for their kids. The therapist will probably ask you to keep a child’s sleep diary. That’ll help them detect the potential problem before moving on to specific problem-solving.
Drug therapy should be the last choice in the treatment of sleep problems in the youngest. Since there are no officially approved medications for these disorders in kids, doctors generally prescribe certain medications off-label.
Melatonin therapy can help with children’s insomnia. It’s a hormone that affects the sleep cycle, and when it’s lacking, sleep disorders can occur. Short-term use of this remedy is safe but not always effective.
Medicines safe for kids include some antidepressants, antihistamines, and hypnotic sleep aids. But you should never give these drugs to your kids without medical supervision. Doctors will prescribe these in severe cases of sleep disturbance when CBT-I doesn’t work or lack of sleep impairs the health of your little one.
Tips for Better Sleep
Teach your child that good sleep is important by practicing these tips:
- Create optimal conditions for sleeping: not too bright or heated room and no distractions or noise
- Don’t practice active play before bedtime
- Avoid heavy meals and sweets late at night
- No phone and TV before bed
- Have a bedtime routine (bath, bedtime story, or cuddling)
- Set a strict time for going to bed and waking up
Kids don’t know much about the importance of good sleep. So you, as a parent, should monitor it and detect potential problems. By reacting on time and establishing good sleep hygiene in your youngsters, you can keep sleep disorders under control. But sometimes professional help is needed to solve these problems.