About sleep problems and solutions in children and teenagers
All children can sometimes have trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep.
Some sleep problems are related to children’s bedtime routines and sleep environments. You can manage these sleep problems by promoting good sleep habits.
Some sleep problems are caused by things like unhealthy eating habits and lack of physical activity. You can often sort out these problems by making some simple lifestyle changes.
Some sleep behaviour can look like a problem but is actually quite typical. This includes night terrors, nightmares and sleepwalking. It might also include bedwetting and toileting.
And 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 noise and activity before bed can get children overexcited and make it harder for them to settle down for sleep. You can work on this with a positive bedtime routine that includes up to an hour of quiet time for your child 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 or a new bedroom. These sleep problems usually sort themselves out within a week or so, as your child’s sleep cycle adjusts to a new routine.
Some sleep environments can make it harder for children to get to sleep. 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.
Here are some ideas if you think your child’s eating habits during the day might be causing sleep problems:
- Make sure your child avoids caffeine – for example, in energy drinks, coffee, tea, chocolate and cola – 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.
It’s great if your child can be active outside, because plenty of natural light during the day also helps with sleep.
Australian guidelines recommend that children aged 5-18 years have at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day.
Night terrors, nightmares and sleepwalking
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.
Bedwetting and toileting
If your child isn’t dry at night, he might wake because he’s wetting the bed. Or he 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
But if your child has been sick, you’ve probably been getting up in the night to soothe and settle her. Once she’s better, she 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
It’s a good idea to talk with your child’s GP if your child has sleep problems and a chronic condition.
Worries and anxiety
If your child is worried about something, she might find it hard to get to sleep, or get back to sleep if she wakes in the night.
You can deal with some worries straight away. For example, ‘Yes, you can have Isla over to play on the weekend even though Grandma is staying with us’.
For other worries 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’.
Big problems like bullying can worry your child and affect his sleep over a longer period. If your child knows what you’re doing to work on the problem, it might help him sleep better. During the day, tell your child how you plan to help, and remind him again if he starts to worry at bedtime.
Anxiety can affect children’s sleep too. You might consider seeing your GP or another health professional if your child’s anxiety seems unusually severe.
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.
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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