When Your Child Struggles
It's 2 a.m. and for the third night
this week your 3-year-old scrambles into your room, fretting that
he can't get back to sleep.
As a parent, you assumed that your
child's frequent nighttime awakenings would end with infancy. So
what's going wrong?
Not to worry, say pediatric sleep
experts. Sleeplessness in young children -- from toddlers to pre-teens
-- is a common phenomenon linked to overstimulation and poor bedtime
habits, both of which are relatively easy to change.
In young children, "probably the
most common thing we treat we'd describe as 'settling problems'
-- difficulty falling asleep, nighttime awakenings. They may be
as common as 25 percent," said Dr. Carol Rosen, medical director
for Pediatric Sleep Services at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital
in Cleveland. She said most parents can help their kids sleep better
at night by teaching them to drift off on their own.
Because they are busy growing physically
and processing unfamiliar neurological data, children need a lot
more sleep than adults. Experts estimate the average baby sleeps
16 to 20 hours a day, while toddlers average about 13 hours a day,
naps included. Total daily sleep time declines gradually with age.
But sleep has lots of competition
for a child's time in today's hyperactive world.
"Ours is a 24/7 society," said Dr.
Judith Owens, a pediatric sleep expert at Brown University Medical
School, in Providence, R.I. "There are many more competing priorities
for sleep now than there were 50 years ago, ranging from the Internet
to TV to social activities, things like hockey practices that are
held at 8 o'clock at night."
In fact, American children may be
counting sheep almost as often as their parents do, according to
a recent survey from the National Sleep Foundation.
According to the survey of almost
1,500 parents, almost two-thirds of American kids under the age
of 10 don't get the sleep they need, 30 percent experience problem
nighttime awakenings on a regular basis, and about a third have
serious trouble waking up for school each morning.
Sleep requires that the mind and
body be relaxed, so one way to ensure that children sleep well is
to turn off TVs and computers and put an end to "roughhousing" or
physical play during that crucial hour before bedtime, the sleep
"These are all stimulating activities
that occur at a time when children should be preparing themselves
psychologically, mentally, physically for that transition from wake
to sleep," Owens said.
Ideally, the last half-hour before
sleep time should be devoted to some type of soothing parent-child
interaction, such as reading. "Turn off the TV and read, listen
to music, talk -- do things that aren't going to stimulate a child
and make it harder for them to fall asleep," Owens advised.
But experts agreed that kids, especially
toddlers, can also become too dependent on intimate parental contact.
"The most common mistake that parents
make that leads to sleep disruption is that the parents are too
intimately involved in the child's transitioning to sleep," said
Dr. Gerald Rosen, a pediatrician at the Minnesota Regional Sleep
Disorders Center in Minneapolis. "Particularly in the toddler age,
if they learn to transition to sleep with intimate contact with
their parents -- rocking, bottle, breast -- then when they have
a normal nighttime awakening, some of those kids aren't able to
transition back to sleep quickly without re-instituting the same
No two children are alike when it
comes to sleep, however, and parents have to pay attention to their
child's "natural sleep-wake rhythm," Rosen said. A strategy that
works well for one child might prove ineffective for another.
Daytime distractions can keep kids
awake at night, too. Caffeine lurks in colas and other soft drinks,
and it has a much more stimulating effect on children than adults,
And, like adults, children can also
toss and turn at night because of stresses in their lives. In school-age
children, there's often "anticipatory anxiety about school or social
relationships," Owens said. "We see a lot of 9-, 10-, 11-year-olds
who come in and they just can't fall asleep because they're worried
Talking over problems with kids can
often help restore sound sleep patterns.
All of the experts agreed, though,
that the leading cause of problem sleep in young children is irregular
"The analogy that we draw for families
is that if you have a child that's going to bed three or four hours
later on Friday and Saturday night, it's like they're getting jet
lag," Owens said. "Come Monday morning they're not going to be in
very good shape."
Sticking to a set bedtime helps kids
set their own internal circadian clock, helping them wake up refreshed
and ready to tackle the day.
Added Rosen: "The pattern kids sleep
best at is if they have a regular time that's the right time, and
they make the transition from wake to sleep in an environment that's
not overly stimulating."
Learn more about children and sleep
at the National
Reference Source 101