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Sleep disorders in children: Symptoms and solutions

Is your child having trouble sleeping? We all know that restful sleep is necessary to heal and repair the body. But health reports suggest that many children are chronically sleep deprived. For instance, in a US National Sleep Foundation study, researchers found that more than two out of every three children aged 10 and under have experienced some type of sleep problem.

There is a price to pay for sleep problems in children. In a revealing study at the Northwestern University Medical Center in America, scientists followed the sleep patterns of 510 children between two and five years old. The study showed that less sleep at night means more behavioural problems during the day.

Other studies have linked poor sleep in children with poor performance in skills, including maths, reading and writing. In addition, some studies show that sleep disturbed children have more depressive symptoms and anxiety disorders.

As with adults, there are all sorts of reasons why some children do not sleep well. Some of those reasons are more serious than others. But if you have a problem sleeper (or two) in your house, there are ways to help everyone, including the parents, get a good night’s sleep and feel alert and productive the next day.

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.
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