While it’s normal for little one’s to wake frequently throughout the night, recent studies show that around 30% of children suffer from some type of sleep disorder, which is more than simply waking up and crying for comfort, or wanting to be held, fed or rocked back to sleep.
According to the Alaska Sleep Education Centre, sleep disorders in babies and children can vary in severity and it’s important to know the signs and symptoms so you can treat them early. Often, it’s a case of understanding the underlying cause of the sleep disorder, rather than simply treating the symptoms or putting it down to “normal child behaviour”. The good news is, most sleep disorders can be treated and successfully cured – so you don’t have to lose sleep over it.
Signs and symptoms of sleep disorders in children
Researchers from the Alaska Sleep Education Centre believe that these symptoms could indicate an underlying sleep disorder:
- Regular snoring
- Nightmares or night terrors
- Sleep walking
Insomnia and Excessive Daytime Sleepiness (EDS)
You might also want to see a healthcare professional if your child seems to be experiencing insomnia
(where she regularly struggles to fall asleep or stay asleep), or if you notice your child being extremely tired and lethargic throughout the day. If your child takes naps at ages where most kids don’t nap, has trouble waking in the morning, or just has a general lack of energy, they may have Excessive Daytime Sleepiness (EDS). This is a sleep disorder that can be treated effectively.
Jolandi Becker, Managing Director of Good Night Baby, a baby and child sleep consultancy, says her and her team have helped many parents whose children suffer from one or more of these symptoms. “Sleep is natural for all of us, and most children can learn to sleep consistently well,” she says. “We work mostly with behavioural issues linked to sleep, and if we pick up any medical sleep disorders in babies or children, we refer parents to a specialist.” In some cases, for instance, regular snoring is a medical issue that’s linked to enlarged tonsils or adenoids and once these are removed, the snoring stops.
A sleep disorder is often linked to one of the following:
Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA)
According to a recent guideline set out by the American Academy of Pediatrics, children who snore should immediately be tested for obstructive sleep apnoea. “Snoring isn’t normal for babies or children and should be taken seriously,” says Jolandi. “However, it’s important to remember that your child might snore when she’s sick and congested – and this isn’t the same as OSA, which is characterised by laboured breathing during sleep as well as disturbed sleep with frequent gasps, snorts or pauses. In some cases, children stop breathing for short periods and this can be very concerning,” she adds.
Once your child has been diagnosed with OSA, your paediatrician or ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT) might recommend an adenotonsillectomy, which involves removing enlarged tonsils and adenoids to help open up the airways. Older children who are obese might also suffer from OSA – and will need to be monitored by a healthcare professional.
Nightmares, night terrors and sleep walking
Nightmares (or bad dreams) are especially prevalent in children who are between two and three years of age, as their imaginations run wild, explains Jolandi.
She says nightmares can be triggered by movies, videos, books or stories and can also occur during times of change or trauma. The good news is, nightmares are usually infrequent, but if your child is having them more frequently, consider seeing a child psychologist or speaking to your paediatrician.
Night terrors, on the other hand, are quite different, says Jolandi. They usually occur in older children between four and eight years old, but there have been cases reported where children as young as 18 months old experience night terrors.
“Parents can be quite alarmed by a night terror as their child can appear quite anxious and could scream for between five and 15 minutes,” Says Jolandi. What’s worse is you might not be able to comfort your child when she’s in this state.
Unlike nightmares, night terrors happen in non-REM sleep and aren’t bad dreams. They can be caused by fevers, medication and most commonly from sleep deprivation (lack of sleep). Night terrors, along with regular sleep walking can be a main contributing factor to a sleep disorder and should be managed quickly.
Jolandi shares her top tips for managing night terrors and sleep walking:
- First, make sure your child is safe when she’s experiencing a night terror or is sleep walking. There’s no need to try to calm your child; just be there and wait it out. If you find her sleep walking, gently guide her back to her room and avoid waking her fully.
- Avoid speaking to your child about her night terror or sleep walking the next day. This can make her afraid and worry as she isn’t aware it’s even happening.
- Implement a set bedtime routine that isn’t too late or too long (around 30 minutes). Children up to the age of five need between 11 and 12 hours of sleep at night, so bedtime should be around 7pm.
- Avoid screen time for at least two hours before bedtime and avoid your child falling asleep in front of the TV.
While it’s normal for kids who are weaning off night nappies to have the occasional accident, bedwetting can be a sign of a more serious sleep disorder, says Jolandi. However, educators from the Alaska Sleep Education Centre say bedwetting isn’t considered a sleep disorder unless your child is older than five-years-old and has episodes at least twice a week, on a regular basis.
Interestingly, bedwetting has been linked to sleep deprivation in children. “Often, when we work with parents and set a regular bedtime routine, as well as modify certain behaviours, the bedwetting improves drastically,” she adds.
To book a consult with a sleep therapist from Good Night Baby, visit their website here.