While it is typical for children to wake up frequently during the night, new studies reveal that over 30% of youngsters suffer from some form of sleep problem, which is more than merely waking up and crying for comfort or needing to be carried, fed, or rocked back to sleep.
According to the Alaska Sleep Education Centre, sleep disturbances in babies and children can range in severity, so it’s critical to understand the signs and symptoms so you can treat them as soon as possible. Often, recognizing the underlying reason for the sleep issue is more important than merely treating the symptoms or dismissing it as typical child behavior. The good news is that most sleep disorders are treatable and effectively remedied, so you don’t have to worry about it.
Sleep disorders in children: signs and symptoms
These symptoms could indicate an underlying sleep disorder:
- Regular snoring
- Nightmares or night terrors
Excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS) and insomnia
You might also want to see a healthcare professional if your child seems to be experiencing insomnia (where she regularly struggles to fall asleep or stay asleep), or if you notice your child being extremely tired and lethargic throughout the day. If your child takes naps at ages where most kids don’t nap, has trouble waking in the morning, or just has a general lack of energy, they may have Excessive Daytime Sleepiness (EDS). This is a sleep disorder that can be treated effectively.
Jolandi Becker, Managing Director of Good Night Baby, a baby and child sleep consultancy, says her and her team have helped many parents whose children suffer from one or more of these symptoms.
“Sleep is natural for all of us, and most children can learn to sleep consistently well,” she says. “We work mostly with behavioral issues linked to sleep, and if we pick up any medical sleep disorders in babies or children, we refer parents to a specialist. In some cases, for instance, regular snoring is a medical issue that’s linked to enlarged tonsils or adenoids and once these are removed, the snoring stops.”
Other related sleep disorders
A sleep disorder is often linked to one of the following:
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)
According to a recent guideline set out by the American Academy of Pediatrics, children who snore should immediately be tested for obstructive sleep apnea.
Snoring isn’t normal for babies or children and should be taken seriously. However, it’s important to remember that your child might snore when she’s sick and congested – and this isn’t the same as OSA, which is characterized by labored breathing during sleep as well as disturbed sleep with frequent gasps, snorts or pauses. In some cases, children stop breathing for short periods and this can be very concerning.
Once your child has been diagnosed with OSA, your pediatrician or ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT) might recommend an adenotonsillectomy, which involves removing enlarged tonsils and adenoids to help open up the airways. Older children who are obese might also suffer from OSA – and will need to be monitored by a healthcare professional.
Nightmares, night terrors and sleepwalking
Nightmares (or bad dreams) are especially prevalent in children who are between two and three years of age, as their imaginations run wild. Nightmares can be triggered by movies, videos, books or stories and can also occur during times of change or trauma. The good news is, nightmares are usually infrequent, but if your child is having them more frequently, consider seeing a child psychologist or speaking to your pediatrician.
Night terrors, on the other hand, are quite different. They usually occur in older children between four and eight years old, but there have been cases reported where children as young as 18 months old experience night terrors.
Parents can be quite alarmed by a night terror as their child can appear quite anxious and could scream for between five and 15 minutes. What’s worse is you might not be able to comfort your child when she’s in this state. Unlike nightmares, night terrors happen in non-REM sleep and aren’t bad dreams. They can be caused by fevers, medication and most commonly from sleep deprivation (lack of sleep). Night terrors, along with regular sleepwalking can be a main contributing factor to a sleep disorder and should be managed quickly.
Top tips for managing night terrors and sleepwalking
- First, make sure your child is safe when she’s experiencing a night terror or is sleepwalking. There’s no need to try to calm your child; just be there and wait it out. If you find her sleepwalking, gently guide her back to her room and avoid waking her fully.
- Avoid speaking to your child about her night terror or sleepwalking the next day. This can make her afraid and worry as she isn’t aware it’s even happening.
- Implement a set bedtime routine that isn’t too late or too long (around 30 minutes). Children up to the age of five need between 11 and 12 hours of sleep at night, so bedtime should be around 7 pm.
- Avoid screen time for at least two hours before bedtime and avoid your child falling asleep in front of the TV.
While it’s normal for kids who are weaning off night nappies to have the occasional accident, bedwetting can be a sign of a more serious sleep disorder. However, educators from the Alaska Sleep Education Center say bedwetting isn’t considered a sleep disorder unless your child is older than five-years-old and has episodes at least twice a week, on a regular basis. Interestingly, bedwetting has been linked to sleep deprivation in children.
Often, when we work with parents and set a regular bedtime routine, as well as modify certain behaviors, the bedwetting improves drastically.