Up to 50% of children will experience a sleep problem at some point in their childhood, according to the Sleep Foundation. While sleep challenges and resulting daytime behavior problems are common, you can take action to help improve your child’s sleep. Age-appropriate sleep habits can help children and adolescents avoid the immediate and long-term impacts that can result from poor sleep.
Having your child screened
Pediatricians and primary care doctors can help discuss sleep routines and potential sleep problems with you and your child. First, if you choose to use over-the-counter remedies for sleeping, even all-natural products, be sure to inform your child’s doctor. If they’re not in the loop on the sleep issues your child is experiencing, it may mean a sleep disorder goes undiagnosed. Similarly, be mindful of any daytime symptoms your child may be experiencing, even those that may not seem related to sleep, such as poor attention or hyperactivity. Often, these symptoms aren’t thought to be related to the negative impact of poor sleep and aren’t reported to the doctor.
After you voice your concerns, your doctor will likely ask you about your child’s bedtime routine.
“Questions may include ‘How long does your child typically sleep? Where? Do you notice snoring? Do they wake up during the night?’” said Binal Kancherla, MD, medical director of the Texas Children’s Sleep Center. “Depending on the answers, the doctor may ask additional questions to zero in on potential disorders.”
If initial screening reveals concerns, further assessment may be needed. Children who have trouble staying awake during the day or hyperactivity may not be getting enough quality sleep.
What is sleep hygiene?
For many children, sleep problems can result from lack of good habits surrounding bedtime, also called sleep hygiene.
“We suggest establishing a bedtime routine and regular schedule as early as 6 months of age, with the child sleeping in their own space — that may be in the parents’ room in a bassinet but not in the parents’ bed, or in their own room if space permits,” Dr. Kancherla said. “For teens, we recommend stopping rigorous activities 2 hours before bed and shutting down electronics, including TV, an hour before. Electronics should not be used in the bedroom — train the body that the bed is for sleeping.”
A sleep routine should begin about an hour before bedtime and includes stopping play, getting dressed for bed and dimming the lights, which can help increase melatonin in the body. Baths and showers can also be helpful in lowering the core body temperature, which helps children (and adults) fall asleep faster.
Children with certain conditions are more likely to have sleep problems. For example, autism and developmental delays are associated with insomnia (trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or getting good quality sleep). The opposite is also true: Sleep disorders are linked to a variety of issues in the body, which is why diagnosis is so important.
“Children with sleep disorders may have increased strain on the heart and cognitive behavioral effects, including trouble with grades and concentration,” Dr. Kancherla said. “Even later in life, research has shown that children with sleep problems are more likely to have heart disease in adulthood and an increased risk of stroke.” Studies have also shown that children who suffer from insomnia are at high risk for sleep problems as adults.
Diagnosis and treatment
The only way to diagnose a sleep disorder is through a sleep study. At Texas Children’s Sleep Center, board-certified pediatric sleep technologists perform studies, which are interpreted by board-certified sleep medicine doctors. If your child has had excessive daytime sleepiness or insomnia for more than 3 months, talk with your child’s doctor about whether a sleep study is right for them.
“Certain sleep conditions like narcolepsy, in which people suddenly fall asleep during the day, are rare and should definitely be assessed by a sleep specialist,” Dr. Kancherla said.
For children diagnosed with sleep apnea (in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts), a device that provides positive airway pressure can help keep the airway open. Adenoids and tonsils should be evaluated by your child’s pediatrician, too. For kids with insomnia, practicing good sleep hygiene can help. Melatonin has also been shown to help regulate the body’s natural rhythm alongside cognitive behavioral therapy. Behaviors such as sleepwalking, sleep-talking and night terrors tend to result from sleep deprivation and may also be linked to family history. In these cases, extending sleep can help, and most children do outgrow these issues over time.
To learn more about the Texas Children’s Sleep Center or to schedule an appointment, call 832-826-2156.