Sleep problems are problems with getting to sleep or staying asleep, and up to 40% of children and teenagers have them. If your child is having sleep problems, there are some simple lifestyle changes and behaviour strategies that you and your child can try.
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About sleep problems in children and teenagers
All children can have trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep.
Some sleep problems are behaviour issues that you can manage by promoting good sleep habits, including positive bedtime routines that encourage settling and sleep.
Some sleep problems are caused by things like unhelpful eating habits and lack of physical activity. You can often sort out these problems by making some simple lifestyle changes.
Other sleep problems are caused by illnesses, health conditions or anxiety. You might need to talk with your GP about these kinds of sleep problems.
Sleep problems often start to get better after the first week of getting into good sleep habits. If you don’t see any improvement, there might be medical or psychological reasons for your child’s sleep problems. It’s worth talking with your child’s GP in this situation.
Too much excitement, noise and activity before bed can get children overexcited and make it harder for them to settle down for sleep.
If you think your child’s bedtime routine or sleep environment might be causing sleep problems, make sure that your child has up to an hour of quiet time to wind down for sleep.
Sometimes changes to children’s normal bedtime routine can affect how well they settle down. For example, daylight saving, jet lag, an unfamiliar bedroom or a sleepover can have a child bouncing around when he’d normally be asleep. These sleep problems usually sort themselves out a week or so, as your child’s sleep cycle adjusts to a new routine.
A sleep environment that’s too light, cold or hot can make it harder for children to get to sleep. If you think this might be the cause of your child’s sleep problems, check that your child’s sleep space is quiet, dimly lit and neither too hot nor too cold.
What and when your child eats and drinks can affect her ability to settle down at night.
For example, caffeine – in energy drinks, coffee, tea, chocolate and cola – might keep your child awake at night, especially if he has it in the late afternoon and evening.
Also, feeling hungry or too full before bed can make your child feel more alert or uncomfortable. This can make it harder for her to get to sleep.
If you think your child’s eating habits during the day might be causing sleep problems:
- make sure your child avoids caffeine, especially in the late afternoon or evening
plan the evening meal so that your child is satisfied but not too full when he goes to bed.
If your child isn’t doing enough physical activity during the day, she might not be feeling physically tired enough to settle down for sleep at night.
It’s a good idea to encourage your child to be more active during the day – for example, even a family walk before dinner can make a difference.
Australian guidelines recommend that children aged 5-18 years have at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day.
It’s great if your child can be active outside, because plenty of natural light during the day also helps with sleep.
Night terrors, nightmares and sleepwalking
If your child sometimes wakes up screaming or crying, it could be a night terror. Night terrors are most common in children 2-4 years and normal up to 12 years. Most children outgrow night terrors when they reach puberty.
Your child might also have nightmares. Nightmares or bad dreams can wake children up and make it hard for them to get back to sleep.
Your child might sleepwalk – that is, walk around the house as if he’s awake when he’s actually in a deep sleep. Sleepwalking doesn’t harm your child, but it can upset your family’s sleep.
Although night terrors, nightmares and sleepwalking are all pretty normal, it’s best to talk to your child’s GP if you’re worried or if your child’s behaviour seems severe. These things can sometimes be a sign of an illness, medical condition or stress.
Bedwetting and toileting
If your child isn’t dry at night, she might wake because she’s wetting the bed. Or she might wake to go to the toilet and then find it hard to get back to sleep.
You can talk with your child’s GP if toilet training and bedwetting are problems for your child.
Common childhood illnesses
Common childhood illnesses like colds or ear infections can sometimes make it hard for children to settle or sleep well. This is normal.
But if your child is sick, you’ve probably been up and down to him at night, soothing and settling him. Once he’s better, he might like to keep having all that extra night-time attention. If this sounds like your situation, you might need to be firm about getting back into your child’s normal bedtime routine.
Chronic health conditions
Chronic health conditions like asthma or epilepsy can also affect children’s sleep.
It’s a good idea to talk with your child’s GP if your child has sleep problems and a chronic condition.
Some children snore. If your child snores all the time, even when she’s well, consider talking with your child’s GP. Snoring can sometimes be a sign of sleep apnoea.
Anxiety can affect children’s sleep too. If your child is really anxious or worried about something, he might find it hard to get to sleep, or get back to sleep if he wakes in the night.
If there’s a quick and easy answer to your child’s worry, you can deal with it straight away. For example, ‘Yes, you can have Isla over to play on the weekend even though Grandma is staying with us’.
But if the problem needs more time, it’s probably best to acknowledge your child’s feelings and gently plan to sort things out in the morning. For example, ‘I understand that you’re worried about doing a speech in front of the class next week. Let’s talk about it in the morning and work out what to do’.
When children don’t sleep well, parents are likely to experience poor sleep, high levels of stress and depression. So there are good reasons for working on your child’s sleep habits and sleep problems.
Getting help for sleep problems in children and teenagers
Talk with your child’s GP if you’ve been trying good sleep habits and lifestyle changes, and they don’t seem to be helping. You might be referred to a paediatrician, psychologist or other health professional who is experienced in treating children’s persistent sleep problems.
Although medicine isn’t the best solution to sleep problems, it can help in some extreme cases.
For example, melatonin might help some children with insomnia. Melatonin can be prescribed only by a doctor. It shouldn’t be given to a child without medical advice and supervision.
Sometimes children can have persistent sleep problems
. Persistent sleep problems are behaviour issues or medical conditions that affect children’s sleep and make it hard for them to function during the day over a long period of time. Talk with your child’s GP if you’re concerned.
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