5 health issues that could be causing your child’s sleep problems

Posted on June 19th, 2019

Just when you think you’ve settled into a night-time routine with your child, sleep problems arise once again. We look at five health issues that could be the culprits. By Tammy Jacks

Toddler sleep problems

There’s a saying that goes, “People who say they sleep like a baby clearly don’t have one!” and while this is meant to be a joke, many parents will agree that – even with the best routine in place, children’s sleep patterns can be unpredictable. This is largely due to health issues that can arise and cause a host of sleep problems, from the minute your child is born until the age of seven.

ALSO SEE: 30% of children suffer from some type of sleep disorder

We chatted to registered sleep consultant and managing director of Good Night Baby, Jolandi Becker, to find out which health issues cause the most sleep problems for her clients and their little ones.

Seasonal sleep problems

Sleep problems in children are often related to the season. “In summer I help parents figure out how to dress their children so they don’t overheat in the night, and deal with plenty of early morning wake-ups due to the sunrise, birds singing and general disruptions that could wake children – who are in their lightest sleep stage between 4am and 6am,” says Jolandi.

In winter, parents have to deal with many health issues that can affect their children’s sleep, sometimes for weeks or even months at a time. “From around April to August, our jobs as sleep consultants become a little more difficult as Mother Nature throws us a few curve balls with childhood illnesses that can cause havoc with children’s sleep,” says Jolandi. She says the most common health issues they help parents navigate through are:

Viruses such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

This is a contagious virus that infects the respiratory tract of children and can either present as a cold, in a mild case, or cause a more serious infection such as pneumonia or bronchiolitis. Other viruses include the common cold and the flu, which can cause severe coughing, body aches, a runny nose, headaches, a sore throat etc.

ALSO SEE: Your guide to childhood respiratory illnesses

Besides the common cold and flu, children are also susceptible to:  

  • Bacterial infections such as tonsillitis and ear infections
  • Pink eye
  • Gastroenteritis
  • Hand foot and mouth disease (which can cause painful sores in the mouth and blisters on the hands and feet)

Although most of these illnesses aren’t serious and take around one and two weeks to run their course, this is enough time to disrupt a child’s sleep, says Jolandi. In cases like these, the main aim is to stick to your child’s bedtime routine as much as possible and give your child appropriate medication to treat the symptoms and support a good night’s sleep. Sleep is so important for recovery and healing, as it assists the immune system to fight infections.

Worms

Worms are parasites that can live in the human body in the intestines. According to childcare experts and authors of Sleep Sense, Megan Faure and Ann Richardson, the most common, and least harmful worm children are affected by is the pinworm. A pinworm infestation can cause your child to be a restless sleeper as the female worm lays thousands of eggs around the anal area at night – which can cause itching and irritation. These eggs are microscopic, so you won’t see them with a naked eye.

It’s important to deworm your child from the age of a year, every six months, especially if you have pets at home or let your little one play in the dirt a lot.

ALSO SEE: How to deworm your child and why you should

Enlarged adenoids or tonsils

“Enlarged tonsils and adenoids (which is lymphatic tissue between the back of the nose and throat), can cause partial airway obstruction in some children, which results in very light sleep and frequent waking,” explain Megan and Ann. These frequent wakings are the body’s protective mechanism to ensure that your child continues to breathe.

If your child:

  • Snores regularly
  • Sleeps with her mouth open most of the time
  • Wakes frequently through the night and during naps, she may have enlarged tonsils or adenoids. See your child’s paediatrician who will be able to determine whether they should be removed.

ALSO SEE: Sleep apnoea – everything you need to know

Allergies

According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, allergies in children can be a major reason for sleep problems. This is because a child who regularly coughs and sneezes or who develops a rash or hives, or suffers from cramps and nausea after eating certain foods will more than likely have problems falling asleep or staying asleep due to the allergy or constant irritation.

Seasonal allergies such as hay fever can also cause a runny nose, postnasal drip, ear infections and nasal congestion which make it very difficult to sleep through the night – if left untreated.

If you suspect your child has an allergy, its important to keep track of her symptoms and flare ups and see an allergist as soon as possible.

ALSO SEE: Is it a common cold or an allergy?

Sensory processing disorder

In Sleep Sense, Ann and Megan explain that in most cases children fall within a normal range of sleep problems, which are simple enough to correct with a few changes to your child’s environment, diet, bedtime routine etc.

However, if your child appeared to be fussy or “colicky” way beyond six months and showed sensory-related symptoms such as being hypersensitive to touch, smell or movement, or barely slept for longer than 30 minutes in the day or night, you could be dealing with a more complex issue known as sensory processing disorder.

Ann and Megan also highlight that children with sensory processing disorder might also appear to be extremely busy in the day and restless at night, suffer from repeated night terrors or wake frequently to rock or sometime bang their heads on their crib.

If you suspect your child has a sensory processing issue, it’s important to see an occupational therapist who can formally asses your child and determine whether she is sensory-seeking or sensory-avoidant.

By identifying which type of sensory issue your child has, you’ll be able to respond appropriately with strategies to calm her central nervous system – and in turn, help her get a better night’s sleep.

ALSO SEE: Sensory integration dysfunction explained

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About Tammy Jacks

Tammy is a wife, mom and freelance writer with 15 years’ experience in the media industry. She specialises in general lifestyle topics related to health, wellness and parenting. Tammy has a passion for fitness and the great outdoors. If she’s not running around after her daughter, you’ll find her off the beaten track, running, hiking or riding her bike.