Most of the time, parents seem to be focused on the hows and whys of sleep-related issues for babies and toddlers. But what about the big kids?
Did you know that one study found that almost 4% of the youths studied had a diagnosable sleep disorder? And that doesn’t account for the kids who just get into negative sleep patterns due to stress, anxiety, or over-scheduling.
As with babies, insufficient sleep with your bigger kids can wreak havoc on not just them, but on the lives of everyone around them. Sleep deprivation in kids has been linked to asthma, obesity, poor immune systems, anxiety, behavioural issues, poor academic performance and low tolerance for frustration. Kids who lack sleep have difficulty concentrating, struggle with memory and are more likely to display aggressiveness.
Stress and over-scheduling can certainly play a role in bedtime troubles, but kids can also experience a number of sleep-related issues, such as these:
1. Sleep Apnoea
Kids with sleep apnoea briefly stop breathing several times a night. These mini-wake-ups leave them fatigued the next day because they don’t log enough deep sleep. Kids with sleep apnoea tend to be loud breathers or snore. Sleep apnoea is often linked to oversized tonsils or adenoids but can also be related to obesity.
If you suspect sleep apnoea, make an appointment to see the paediatrician for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.
2. Stress or Anxiety
Kids have worries, too. It might seem like preschool and kindergarten are all fun all the time, but kids experience stress related to friendships, pleasing parents, teachers, and other adults, transitions, new siblings, divorce, illness, and many other reasons.
If your little one repeatedly asks for one more hug, demands water and other things the moment the lights go out, appears clingy at bedtime, or puts off bedtime entirely, stress and/or anxiety might be the culprit. Like adults, kids experience a spike in anxiety when the lights go out because the busy part of the day is done. Because this is when the worries creep in.
Kids struggling with stress and/or anxiety need a longer bedtime routine that includes time to get their worries out and extra comfort from parents.
Start the bedtime routine earlier. Your child may need at least 30 to name their worries, talk about solutions, and get some extra snuggles and reassurances. Try telling your child a relaxing story while they close their eyes and focus on deep breathing.
A worry box can be a great way to help your child name and put away their worries before bed at night.
Check the lighting of the room. Too much darkness can feel overwhelming for little kids, but too much light can make it difficult to fall asleep.
Empathise with your child. Nighttime worries feel very scary.
3. Night Wakings
It’s hard enough when illness jolts kids awake in the middle of the night, but many kids experience night terrors or nightmares somewhat regularly.
Night terrors are characterised by screaming, heavy breathing, sitting up, staring with wide eyes, and sweating. Kids are not awake when they experience night terrors, and most don’t remember them the following morning. Night terrors can be triggered by fatigue, stress, anxiety, disrupted sleep schedules, and fevers.
Nightmares can be very scary for children and trigger a fear of falling asleep. Young children encounter new information at a steady pace, and some of that learning can be overwhelming. Nightmares are a normal part of growing up, but they can become disruptive when they occur frequently. Sometimes nightmares are the result of something scary a child witnessed or saw on TV, but other times they come out of the blue.
In general, kids will outgrow night terrors, but nightmares can continue into adolescence.
Treatment for night terrors generally isn’t necessary. If you suspect that stress is the underlying cause, consider revisiting your child’s schedule to make it more manageable and work on ways to cope with triggers of stress.
Not all nightmares can be avoided, but you can decrease exposure to media (specifically the news) and scary content, use nightlights, discuss nighttime fears during the day, offer a security object to help self-soothe, provide comfort when nightmares occur, and focus on relaxing activities before bed (puzzles, drawing, reading etc.)
Remember, healthy sleep habits begin hours before bedtime!
A great way to improve sleep habits is to establish a healthy routine, and this requires advanced planning. Make sure kids are getting outdoor exercise time each day and are avoiding caffeine (including chocolate in the evenings). As much as possible, stick to the same schedule (even on weekends and during vacations).
When kids know that every day ends the same way, the routine itself will cue the body that it’s time to sleep.
And that’s good news for the whole family.