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The Sleep Health Foundation reports that more than a third of school-aged children have sleep problems. Having interrupted sleep can cause a number of issues in growth, development and behaviour. Sleep problems are difficult to diagnose in children as they can’t always let us know that they are having troubles sleeping. Two of the most common sleep disorders in children are night terrors and insomnia.
Night terrors are completely different from the common nightmare. Symptoms of night terrors are frequent and recurrent episodes of intense crying and fear during sleep, often accompanied by a raised heart and breathing rate. Children experiencing night terrors are difficult to wake and don’t remember the episode. It usually begins 90 minutes into sleep and involves the child sitting up in bed, seemingly awake but unresponsive, screaming and crying. They are usually disorientated and confused; they don’t know their parent is present and cannot be comforted. An episode typically only lasts a few minutes but can last up to 30 minutes. The condition usually resolves itself in adolescence.
Insomnia is a sleep disorder where children have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night. Older children may complain of this, but it is harder to spot in younger children who may not be able to communicate this issue clearly. Insomnia can also involve the child frequently waking too early. A number of things can be attributed to causing insomnia in children, including; stress, caffeine, environmental factors and other medical conditions. Being sleepy during the day, worrying about going to bed, mood swings and a decreased attention span can all be symptoms of insomnia.
Studies have shown that children with insomnia tend to have no trouble falling asleep when they have an enforced bedtime. It has been suggested that childhood insomnia is a result of not having a consistent bedtime. Children who push back bedtime with various excuses such as needing an extra drink or reading another bedtime story are usually more likely to have insomnia. Enforcing a strict bedtime can in some cases help to curb insomnia. If it doesn’t, it is likely there is another underlying issue which could be assessed by a professional.
NHS England recommends that having a relaxing bedtime routine helps with night terrors. Being relaxed before bed is essential for any good night’s sleep and this is no different for children; they also encounter stress throughout their day. Night terrors are often caused by stress, so introducing a bedtime routine which reduces stress could help to combat the night terrors. A relaxing bedtime routine can include a number of steps, but most recommendations include a relaxing bath and a bedtime story.
Sleep can be disturbed by noise, temperature and discomfort. Frequently disturbed sleep can start a cycle of sleep disorders such as night terrors and insomnia. Consider whether you child’s sleeping environment is optimal. Their mattress should be comfortable and supportive, the temperature should be around 18°C and if there is a lot of outside noise, look to disguise it with a sound machine. These small changes could make a massive difference when it comes to sleep disorders.