Helping children get a good night's rest

Can I have a glass of water? I'm afraid of the dark. There's a monster under my bed. Children can make up many excuses not to go to, or stay in, bed. And parents find just as many reasons why they need to get some shut-eye. Some childhood sleep problems are caused by poor sleep habits, while others may be hereditary or symptoms of emotional difficulties. Fortunately, children typically outgrow sleep problems so they – and their parents – can get a good night's rest.

“Not getting enough sleep for children can lead to decreased attentiveness, hyperactivity, delayed response time, and erratic daytime performance,” says Amie Stringfellow, M.D., internal medicine/pediatrician on the medical staff at Houston Northwest Medical Center. Dr. Stringfellow, who completed a fellowship in adult and pediatric sleep medicine, offers parents the following tips to help head off bedtime troubles.

  • Stick to the same bedtime every night, even on weekends.
  • Turn off the television, video games and computer at least 30 minutes before going to bed and start winding down with a consistent routine that includes brushing teeth, going to the bathroom, and maybe reading a short story.
  • Make sure the place to sleep is comfortable, dark and quiet.
  • If the child cries when put to bed, wait a little longer each time you check on them.
  • If the child gets out of bed, return them to bed right away.

Some of the most common sleep disorders affecting children are snoring, sleep apnea, insomnia, restless leg syndrome and sleepwalking. Children who frequently snore or have sleep disorders are almost twice as likely to suffer from attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) compared to children who sleep well. Research has shown that some children may be misdiagnosed with ADHD when the real problem is a sleep disorder. In many cases, people who have both ADHD and a sleep disorder have shown marked improvement in their ADHD symptoms after the sleep problem is treated.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, about 10 to 12 percent of children snore most nights. Snoring is never normal in children. It can occur when enlarged tonsils or adenoids cause blockages that make the snoring sound, or it can also be a sign of sleep apnea. In addition to snoring, sleep apnea can cause children to stop breathing, gasp for breath, or work particularly hard to breathe while sleeping and affects approximately one to three percent of children. Children with sleep apnea can stop breathing several times or more an hour while asleep.

Insomnia in children can cause irritability, mood swings, hyperactivity, depression, aggressiveness, short attention spans and problems with memory. Some common reasons for insomnia include poor sleep habits such as snoring, asthma, stress and restless leg syndrome. The major symptom in restless leg syndrome is an almost irresistible urge to move the legs when at rest, which can make it difficult to fall or stay asleep.

Sleepwalking typically starts between the ages of six and 12. Children who sleepwalk may look like they are awake, but actually they are sleeping and may be at risk for injury by falling down stairs or walking outside. Sleepwalking tends to run in families and affect boys more than girls.

“Sleeping disorders could have important consequences on daytime cognition, behavior and development,” says Dr. Stringfellow. “That is why it is important for parents of a child that is having sleep problems to talk with the pediatrician about having their child evaluated for a sleep disorder.”

Pediatric sleep studies are offered at the Sleep Center at Houston Northwest Medical Center. Various polysomnography procedures for children are performed at the Center. Accommodations are available for parents to stay with their child overnight in the four-bedroom sleep laboratory that is located adjacent to pediatric patient rooms. For more information about the Sleep Center, call 281-397-2719.

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