Lie down. Close your eyes. Stay in your bed. Sleep should be such a simple thing for kids, right? True enough, unless your child experiences extreme sleep difficulties. Pediatric sleep disorders are actually quite common, showing up in almost 50% of children. In fact, they may be affecting your child without you realizing it.
We need our ZZZZs
Sleep is incredibly important to the growing brain. It is only through sleep that humans’ biological systems reset. This nightly reboot increases immune function, improves the ability to learn and retain information, boosts mental health, balances hormone levels and aids in physical growth and healing. A child lacking sleep won’t thrive in school or day-to-day life. But “learning” to sleep is a normal part of childhood growth and behavior, so how does a parent tell the difference between normal challenges and a disorder?
In addition to increased toddler visits to your bed at all hours, nighttime sleep disruptions show up in daytime symptoms such as drowsiness, irritability, behavioral issues, learning difficulties and poor academic performance. It may be helpful to keep a log of nighttime ups and downs and daytime symptoms to determine a pattern or note an excessive amount of wakings. If the struggle is real, talk to your pediatrician; he or she may recommend your child be tested for a sleep disorder.
What are they?
Common childhood sleep disorders include obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), restless leg syndrome (RLS), several parasomnias and behavioral insomnia.
Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by a physical blockage in the airway and generally results in snoring and strange sleeping positions as well as a terrible night’s sleep. Because the child can’t breathe properly or get enough oxygen during sleep, an adenotonsillectomy is usually performed to alleviate OSA.
Nearly 1.5 million U.S. children and adolescents suffer from RLS (also often diagnosed in adults). Iron deficiency, genetics and dopamine dysfunction can play a role in this nuisance, which can manifest in daylight hours, too. Exercise, changes in habits, routines, diet and even medication can help alleviate RLS symptoms.
Parasomnias are fairly common in children and include sleep walking and talking, nightmares and night terrors, and confused arousals. Extreme cases may exhibit isolated recurrent sleep paralysis. Parasomnias usually self-correct by adolescence and mainly require caregiver vigilance. Often triggered by sleep deprivation, OSA or RLS, parasomnias are often alleviated simply by treating those disorders.
Behavioral insomnia is another common sleep disorder in children and is often diagnosed as a reliance on a specific object, environment or person for falling and remaining asleep. Perhaps Mom rocked Baby to sleep every night for an extended period, for example, and now Toddler has developed a dependency on that motion. Several methods to break such habits are available and fairly easy to implement.
What to do
An important step for children suffering from a sleeping disorder is to learn good sleep hygiene. Caregivers may also need to change their ways in order to model appropriate behavior. The same goes for delayed sleep phase disorder, which affects the child’s circadian rhythm. Realizing that light exposure (both artificial and natural) as well as daily activity levels, timing of meals and other routines affect the body’s ability to understand the signal of “bedtime is coming soon” will help calm these particular issues.
With sleep being such an important piece of healthy human functioning, it is no wonder that parents worry when their children struggle. Plus, caring for a child who doesn’t sleep well or through the night is exhausting. If your child exhibits any of these symptoms, it may be time to give their pediatrician a call. Remember, Hancock Regional Hospital has some great resources in its Neurology and Sleep Disorder Center as well. We are here to help you and your family stay happy and healthy this year!
American Association of Family Physicians: https://www.aafp.org/afp/2014/0301/p368.html