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Sleep disorders in children: Symptoms and solutions

Sleep is important for a child's health, yet many children don’t get enough sleep to help them concentrate at school.

A lack of sleep can also affect behaviour.

Research for the Schools Health Education Unit suggests that 28% of 14-15-year-old girls and 22% of boys the same age don't think they get enough sleep enough to help them concentrate on their studies.

Modern life has many distractions to nibble away at a child's sleep, from long hours playing video games, to late night mobile messaging.

Are there different categories of sleep problems in children?

Sleep problems can be classified into two major categories, within which there are over 30 types. The first is dyssomnias. These disorders are seen as either excessive sleepiness or difficulty in maintaining or initiating sleep. In children, dyssomnias may include:

  • Intrinsic sleep disorders, such as snoring and obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), childhood onset insomnia, hypersomnia (excessive sleeping) and narcolepsy (falling asleep unexpectedly).
  • Extrinsic sleep disorders, such as inadequate sleep hygiene, limit setting sleep disorder, food allergy insomnia and adjustment sleep disorder.
  • Circadian-rhythm sleep disorders, such as jet lag and irregular sleep wake pattern.

The second class of sleep disorders is parasomnias. In children, parasomnias may include:

  • Arousal disorders, such as sleepwalking, night terrors.
  • Transition disorders, such as sleep talking, sleep starts (muscular jerks), leg cramps, body rocking or head banging.
  • REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, such as nightmares.
  • Other conditions, such as infant sleep apnoea and sleep bedwetting (nocturnal enuresis).

What is insomnia?

Insomnia is a disruption of the sleep cycle that includes difficulties getting to sleep, difficulties staying asleep, and possibly early morning awakenings. In children, insomnia can last a few nights or can be long-term, lasting weeks. Children with sleep anxiety may have insomnia. Other insomnia triggers include daily or chronic stress, pain, or mental health issues.

If your child has insomnia, here are things you can do:

  • Try to identify and address stressors. For example, additional homework, problems with friends, or a move to a new house or school, can cause nighttime anxiety.
  • Establish a regular bedtime routine that allows your child time to relax before the lights go out.
  • If insomnia continues, seek medical advice about ways to resolve the sleep problem.

What does it mean if a child snores loudly?

Slightly more than one out of every ten children snore habitually. Snoring can be caused by different problems. For example, chronic nasal congestion, enlarged adenoids, or huge tonsils that block the airway can all cause snoring.

With snoring, the muscles supporting the opening of the upper airway in the back of the child’s throat relax during sleep. Extra tissue in the palate and uvula, the fleshy piece between the tonsils, vibrates with each breath. These vibrations actually cause the sound we call “snoring”. In some children, there is a tendency for the airway to close at any point along this area. Narrowing of the airway causes turbulence and the noises of snoring.

Snoring can be harmless. But it can also result in poor quality sleep and changes in the child’s sleep-wake cycle. Because of restless sleep and frequent awakenings, there is diminished daytime alertness. That can lead to dramatic alterations in mood and energy. A few children who snore may have a more serious problem called obstructive sleep apnoea or OSA.

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