Diagnosing insomnia and sleep disorders in infants, babies and toddlers can be a difficult one, their sleep cycles are very different from an adult.
According to data gathered by the National Sleep Foundation, more than two-thirds of children suffer from frequent sleep problems. Most sleep problems in children can be corrected by adjusting their bedtime routine, however some sleep problems are true disorders that may need special attention by a healthcare professional.
Common sleep disorders in children
- Sleep apnoea
- Night terrors
- Teeth grinding
Most children go to sleep within 20 minutes of being quiet in bed.
But some children regularly have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or not going back to sleep if they wake. This is where it can be a tricky one, this could just be down to not having the proper bedtime routine or it could be that your child has insomnia.
Sometimes behaviors that can seem worrying are actual what your baby does to try and sooth themselves to sleep. You may find that he/she will shake their head rapidly from side to side, rock back and forth or they bang their heads purposefully against the cot/bed. These are normal behaviours that are not necessarily signs of insomnia.
Insomnia in children is not usually a serious problem. However, it does cause difficulties in that your child's behavior or mental clarity may be affected the next day if they haven't gotten an adequate amount of sleep.
A good sleep routine is paramount, set the time every night where you follow the same guidelines to putting your child to bed. This may be: Bath + Relaxation time + Story.
Make sure your child feels safe at night and check there isn't too much light coming into their room (it's okay for the room to be lighter during the day), make sure that the temperature in their room matches what you have them wearing to bed.
A sleeping aid is of course something that we also recommend. Click here for more info if you haven't already got one.
Allow your child to have a comforter but consider taking away certain toys or musical objects that may distract them from sleeping.
Occasionally, insomnia can be a symptom of depression, an anxiety disorder or hyperactivity. If your child has insomnia regularly then we recommend that you see your child’s doctor.
Sleepwalking can be fairly common in children, anywhere from two years of age up to their early teens.
There is no obvious reason why sleepwalking happens, it can run in the family. But more than likely if your child is overtired, has a high temperature or is feeling stressed or anxious this is when sleepwalking can occur.
I remember (kind of) sleep walking once in my early teens and my parents woke up to the back-door slamming shut and me on the ground outside “looking for my ring” I woke up the next morning not wondering why I had dirt all over me.
Some children have only mild episodes and may only sit up in bed, where as some have been known to get out of bed, walk up and down stairs or even try to leave the house. Other children may try to eat, drink, or use the toilet while asleep.A sleepwalker usually:
- has a blank, staring expression
- is very difficult to wake up
- does not seem to hear or notice anyone
- can’t remember the episode the next day
- may be confused when they first wake up.
A child with sleep apnoea usually snores and stops breathing for a few seconds when sleeping. This signals the brain to wake them up. The sequence of not breathing followed by briefly waking up may happen many times during the night. While children seldom remember waking up, they may be tired or cranky during the daytime. In children a common cause is enlarged tonsils or adenoids (lymph nodes located in the throat behind the nose). Sleep apnoea is much more common in adults than children.
If you think that your child has sleep apnoea, talk with your child’s doctor.
If they have the following symptoms, they may have Obstructive Sleep Apnoea Syndrome (OSAS):
- Loud snoring
- Noisy breathing
- Take more effort to breathe
- Don’t breathe consistently (pause and gasp)
- Night sweats
- Mouth breathing
- Sleep in strange positions
- Morning headaches
- Grow or gain weight slowly
- Don’t look refreshed
- Learning difficulties during the day
OSAS in children tends to be caused by large tonsils and/or adenoids. A sleep study in a children’s sleep unit can work out how bad the OSAS is. This is done overnight. Surgery is a common way to treat OSAS in children. The tonsils and adenoids are taken out. Some children have a higher risk of OSAS. Risk factors are if he or she is obese, has a narrow bone structure in their face, Down Syndrome, neurological problems, weak muscles or has had cleft palate.
Children with night terrors usually wake within the first few hours of going to sleep and scream or call out. The terror may last for several minutes, or sometimes up to half an hour or more. Night terrors can also occur more than once in the same night. Usually the child’s eyes are wide open, but have a glazed appearance and appear to not be present. It can be very scary for parents, but harmless for the child and are a normal part of development.
If your child has a night terror don’t wake them, remain calm and stay with them to make sure they don’t hurt themselves. Read more about nightmares and night terrors here.
Hypersomnia is a condition in which your child sleeps far more than is normal for their age. Your child is always tired, even after a good night’s sleep. A young child with hypersomnia may often be whingy and irritable. Other symptoms besides the need for a lot of sleep may be lack of concentration or poor memory.
If you think your child has hypersomnia, set a clear routine of bedtime and nap times for several days. If things don’t change, see your child’s doctor.
Some children grind or clench their teeth while asleep. This is sometimes called ‘bruxism’. Children who do this may also grind or clench their teeth when angry, upset or anxious.
If it happens once in a while, that’s not a problem. If it happens almost every night, it can be. Repeated grinding or clenching of the teeth can damage the teeth or their jaw.
If your child grinds or clenches their teeth during sleep, you may want to try extending their quiet time before bed, even if they are an older child as teeth grinding can be a stress related issue, if this doesn’t help then its best to see a doctor or dentist. Special tooth guards can be made for them to wear until you figure out the root cause.
Some other reasons for your babies disrupted sleep may be:
- Food allergies
- Vitamin deficiencies
- Breathing troubles
- Colic – See here for more information on Colic
Things you can do to help
- Create a wind-down time, a period during which the lights dim, the TV is turned low or off, no phones or tablets are used and the house is quiet;
- Establish a regular bedtime
- Create a regular feeding schedule and eliminate any foods that may stimulate alertness this would usually be high sugar items, sometimes even having fruit may interfere with sleep if eaten too close to sleep time
- Make their sleeping arrangements as comfortable as possible ie: keep their room dark, check the room temperature and run a humidifier with essential oils
- Dress your child appropriately for the room temperature
- Watch your child for signs that they may be getting worse, it's an idea to invest in a baby monitor if you don’t already have one. Even if they are an older child.
- Consider keeping a diary of their day/night to try and figure out what the root cause is, it's also a great tool to then take to a specialist if your child's doctor recommends that you see one.