Child spending sleepless nights? Here's what you do!

  • By Dr. Ramya Mohan

Sleep problems in children are one of the most common issues families face today. In a changing world with limited social support, children as well as parents find managing the day very difficult after a disrupted night's sleep. This in turn affects the child's school/exam performance and family life considerably. So, how does a parent recognize difficulties and when do they seek help for their child?

All of us have an internal body clock that regulates our 24-hour sleep-wake cycle. Sleep problems occur when this internal clock does not work properly – difficulties with sleeping become sleep difficulties over a period of time.

What's causing the sleep problems?

Common sleep problems in children and adolescents can broadly be divided into problems with falling asleep, staying asleep, waking up too early or late, or a combination of the above. The causes for these vary greatly with the age and developmental stage of the child or adolescent.

A younger child may be in discomfort. The surroundings may be too hot or cold or the child may be in pain due to an underlying condition such as colic. Either may be difficult for a very young child to verbalize.

The child could also be experiencing what psychiatrists refer to as ‘sleep terrors’ or disturbed sleep due to dreams that are not easily recalled the next day.

On the other hand, a teenager may worry about friendships, relationships, or academics.

Sleep problems can also reflect chaos at home, spending too much time on bright screens just before bed, poor sleeping habits in the family, nightmares/bad dreams or something as simple as an uncomfortable bed or pillow.

Sleep problems may sometimes indicate serious physical conditions like night-time epilepsy or obstructive sleep apnea (a condition causing breathing difficulties). It could also be caused due to serious mental health problems like depression and anxiety. Conversely, persistent sleep problems commonly lead to mental health issues.

Seeking specialist advice

Practical, commonsense techniques should be tried first. Simple steps such as a consistent winding-down routine before bed, a warm non-caffeinated drink, a warm shower/bath and avoiding bright screens before bed help a lot.

You can offer a simple reward system to younger children for following good sleep hygiene.

Any problem that persists for over a couple of weeks after such practical strategies have been tried, should be taken seriously. At this stage, it is best to take specialist advice from both a pediatrician and a child and adolescent psychiatrist to rule out physical, mental, or emotional health difficulties. Recognizing the underlying cause and treating it appropriately is the key.

As our understanding and awareness of sleep problems increase, sleep medicine is becoming an increasingly specialized field and interventions are becoming more effective. There are different medicines to aid sleep along with simple sleep routines. However, sleep medication for growing children should be used only under a doctor’s guidance and always be alongside behavioral support strategies.