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Common Sleep Problems in Children

Misty Karam
Sleep problems in children can affect everyone in the family.

Few things can be as frustrating or as concerning as sleep problems in children. When a child has trouble sleeping, it affects the whole family in a variety of ways. Concentration, behavior, and school and work performance are all affected by poor sleep. Luckily, most children's sleep problems can be corrected.

Behavior or Medical

In looking at your child's sleep problems, it is important to differentiate between medical issues and behavorial ones. There are some sleep problems that your child simply has no control over. Most, though, can be corrected with time, persistence, and consistency.

Nighttime Waking

We expect newborns to wake frequently during the night, and we accept that as part of the parenting package. When your child is a preschooler or older, however, nighttime waking is no longer easily tolerated. The fact is, though, that most people wake in the night. The real problem is that some children have difficulty self-soothing. In other words, they can't put themselves back to sleep. If your child has this problem, it is important to examine the way your child goes to sleep initially:

  • Are you putting him to sleep, or does he go to sleep on his own?
  • Is music playing when he goes to sleep?
  • Does he go to sleep with a television on?
  • Are lights on when he goes to sleep?

Now, compare this to the environment he finds when he wakes in the middle of the night. Many children get accustomed, or trained, to sleep in one specific manner. They need the exact same routine each and every time they fall asleep, whether it's a the normal bedtime or at three in the morning. For example, if you rub your child's back until he dozes off, or if you sing him to dreamland, he has been trained to think he needs these things in order to sleep. Likewise, if he goes to sleep in a brightly lit, loud room, the dark silence of midnight may be an obstacle to sleep.

The wonderful thing about trained sleep problems is that they can be untrained. Yes, it can be difficult and taxing, but it is quite doable. Decide on a calming bedtime routine for your child, one that is pleasant and sleep-inducing. Many families include a warm bath and storytime in their bedtime ritual. Once you have completed your routine, leave the room. A dark, quiet room is most conducive to sleep. Be forewarned: your child will likely resist the new sleep method. He may cry. He may scream. He might call you the worst parent in the world. Don't worry, he'll thank you one day.

The important thing is consistency. Once you have started this process, you can't stop. You must calmly return him to his bed each and every time he leaves. Do not stay in his room. Do not sing or rock him or rub his back. After a few days, your child will have learned new sleep habits. Now that he knows how to put himself to sleep, he can use these skills for middle-of-the-night wakings. If he does wake and call out or leave his bed, use the same matter-of-fact methods you used at bedtime. Soon you will all be sleeping better.

Waking Too Early

Another major problem for many families is children who wake well before parents are ready for them to awaken. If this is the case in your home, look at your child's bedtime. Is it realistic? Is it in keeping with the normal sleep needs of a child his age? It's unrealistic to expect a child to go to bed early and sleep late.

If your child's bedtime isn't the problem, try looking for something in his room that may be waking him prematurely: is a street light shining through his window? Is the early morning sun casting its rays on his face? Is a bird, street construction, or a noisy neighbor waking sleep difficult? If you find an environmental problem, look for a way to correct it. For example, room darkening shades are a great way to keep out the sun or street lights.

If you find none of these things, it could be that your child simply needs less sleep than other children. If that is the case, you can't make him sleep-- but you can make him behave quietly until you're ready for him to rise. Try offering incentives for quiet mornings.

Medical Sleep Problems in Children

There are other sleep problems in children that are not so easily correctable. If your child's sleep disorder is related to normal child development or a medical condition, you may have to let nature-- or medicine-- take its course.

Bed Wetting

Many children suffer from bedwetting, or enuresis, and it's rarely cause for concern. It usually just indicates that your child's bladder is a failing to let him know he needs to wake up to use the restroom. Since this is developmental, there is nothing you or your child can do to eliminate the problem. You can help him go to sleep with a less full bladder, though. Try:

  • Limiting nighttime liquid consumption
  • Making a bathroom visit part of the bedtime routine
  • Waking the child during the child to use the restroom

In addition, offer positive reinforcement, in the form of praise and rewards, for accident-free nights. However, never punish him for wetting the bed. This isn't something he can control.

Night Terrors

If you've ever seen a child in the middle of a night terror, you know the experience is frightening. Fortunately, it is much worse for the child. In fact, children have no memory of night terros the next day. During a night terror, a child partially wakens from a deep sleep. The child appears to be in great distress and will scream, moan, or thrashing. Efforts to comfort the child often result in heightened fear. During a night terror, do not attempt to restrain your child. Instead, let your child know that you are nearby. Make sure the child is safe. Some children will attempt to jump or run during a night terror, and you'll need to help him avoid injury. Aside from that, all you can do is wait for the night terror to end.

Most children outgrow night terrors by age six, but the terrors may return in times of stress.

Sleep Apnea

While most sleep problems in children are harmless, some can cause problems. Sleep apnea, for example, can cause many problems, including the symptoms of ADHD. Symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Loud snoring
  • Breathing from the mouth
  • Frequent, unexplained night wakings
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Large tonsils
  • Weight loss
  • Headaches
Common Sleep Problems in Children