Most parents have experienced difficulty in getting their child to sleep at one point or another, and wondered if it was just a passing phase or an actual sleep disorder. When does the exhausting schedule of bathroom breaks, songs, poems, and the ritual allaying of fears actually translate into a sleeping problem or medically related sleep disorder? The truth is, every age and stage comes with its own set of sleeping problems and it is important to become aware of them so that you and your children achieve a good night’s rest.
While the problem can be very distressing and leave a parent feeling quite alone, sleep problems in children are actually very common. In fact, it is estimated that as many as 30% of children experience a sleeping disorder at some point in childhood, according to The National Association of School Psychologists.
Identifying Sleep Problems
Every child may have a few nights of restless or difficult sleep. Often times, these brief periods are related to some circumstance that is making them feel excited or anxious for some reason. Once the situation passes, normal sleep is usually restored. Some of the more persistent problems may be caused by “separation anxiety,” or a young child’s natural fear of being away from the parents. Sometimes however, the problems can be more serious. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry some of the clues to a more serious problem might include:
• Wakening frequently
• Talking in sleep
• Trouble falling asleep
• Grinding teeth
• Waking too early
• Waking sleepy
Common Sleep Disorders and Treatments
Children experience a wide range of sleep disorders as they pass from one developmental stage to another. Some of them are resolved quickly and easily, while others should be evaluated by a physician. Each problem may require a different treatment, and not all treatments may be right for your child.
• Sleep walking is most common in children from ages 8-12 and is usually outgrown by the teen years. Special precautions should be made to clear any tripping hazards and perhaps using combination locks up high on the door if the child has made any attempt to open the door while asleep.
• Night terrors cause the child to suddenly but partially awake feeling fearful, screaming, and crying. Usually, children do not remember the night terror once they are fully awake. It is recommended not to wake the child fully, but provide comfort during the episode. Since the cause can be neurological, it is important to talk to your pediatrician about any night terrors your child has experienced.
• Bedwetting can be defined in two categories. Primary enuresis, where a child has never been dry consistently, may signal a physical problem, such as bladder control issues. Secondary enuresis, when a child is experiencing bedwetting after having been able to stay dry through the night for over a year, may signal a sleeping problem or emotional distress. Treatments can include the reinforcement of potty training, a physical, and perhaps counseling.
• Sleep-onset anxiety occurs when a child has difficulty sleeping because excessive fears over common, sometimes nominal problems. Sometimes, changing bedtime rituals can help or developing coping strategies.
• Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder where the air passage way becomes blocked, preventing proper breathing. Although it is far more common in adults, children waking frequently, feeling groggy during the day and snore loudly should be evaluated by a doctor.
While this is not an exhaustive list of sleep disorders in children, it does provide a measure of unhealthy sleep patterns. If your child is experiencing sleep deprivation, it may be very helpful to do further research. Your local hospital likely has a resource center where you can find books and pamphlets to help guide you.