Help your children get the rest they need

Many sleep disorders that keep adults up at night and dragging during the day can have the same effect on children and teens.

Pediatric sleep expert Sally Ibrahim, MD, says these sleep disorders can affect your children’s health — and yours, since you care for them. She offers facts on some common childhood sleep disorders and the steps you can take to overcome them.

Insomnia

Insomnia affects children in much the same way it affects adults — except that it’s usually the parent who notices and reports it. Like adults, children may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.

Acute cases can be brought on by stress or illness, but if insomnia lasts longer than a few months, it may be chronic. For milder cases, help your children practice good sleep hygiene. Follow these tips:

  • Set limits, and be firm about bedtime and expectations.
  • Have a regular bedtime routine, and stick to it the best you can. This may result in some pushback from kids — but it will be worth it when it results in better sleep for everyone in your household!
  • Avoid caffeine and reduce sugar intake.
  • Keep electronics out of the bedroom, especially for adolescents and children who cannot regulate their use.
  • Keep the bedroom quiet, cool and dark.
  • For younger kids, give rewards to reinforce desired behaviors.

For difficult cases, talk with your pediatrician. For some children, a consult with a sleep doctor may help. Sometimes a behavioral sleep psychologist is available to help guide insomnia with cognitive behavioral therapy.

Delayed sleep phase syndrome

As if puberty didn’t bring enough worries, it also may throw off a teenager’s sleep-wake cycle. When they have delayed sleep phase syndrome (a circadian rhythm disorder), their biological clock makes them have a tendency to become typical “night owls” — late to bed and late to rise.

This is often mistaken as insomnia at first, but can lead to insomnia if it becomes chronic — or habitual. Here’s what you can do:

  • Teach your teen good sleep hygiene habits.
  • Make sure they avoid caffeine.
  • Limit daytime napping
  • Limit use of electronics at night, especially the use of light.
  • Light can further delay the biological clock and light exposure at night should be avoided. Conversely, having light in the morning helps regulate the clock to wake up, and helps keep the biological rhythm in check. Sometimes using a light box can help.
  • Melatonin at low dosages (less than 1 mg) can also be used to regulate sleep patterns, but talk with your child’s pediatrician about it before having your teen take melatonin. The goal is to readjust your teen’s clock back to a schedule that’s in sync with school and society so they can get to sleep sooner and wake easier.

Sleep apnea

Snoring, disturbed sleep, pauses in breathing while asleep — these symptoms of sleep apnea strike children too. Listen for nasal congestion and heavy breathing when your child sleeps.

On top of the typical adult consequences of sleep apnea, such as mood changes, daytime fatigue and high blood pressure, Dr. Ibrahim says children with sleep apnea may wet the bed. And they may have similar daytime issues to children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), such as trouble concentrating, poor grades and behavioral issues.

If you suspect sleep apnea, your pediatrician can refer you for a sleep study. The gold standard for diagnosing sleep apnea and knowing how severe it is with a sleep study. 

If your child has sleep apnea, the first line therapy is removing the tonsils and adenoids, but there may be other considerations for your child. CPAP, a machine that helps with nighttime breathing, is typically reserved for those who already had their tonsils and adenoids removed or those who don’t have any other surgical options.

The important thing, Dr. Ibrahim says, is to address sleep issues as early as you can for your child. This will help to ensure that they stay healthy and develop positive sleep habits for life.