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How to handle sleep problems in children and teenagers

40% of Children at some stage will have a sleep problem considered significant by their parents

Personally, I think there is a big misconception that only babies and toddlers are ‘bad sleepers’. Older children can have sleep difficulties too, and it is surprisingly common that children from the ages of 3 years and upwards can struggle with night-time sleep. Not all sleep problems are persistent: some are short term and parents can encourage good sleep habits to help improve the issue. They are typically not serious and generally get better on their own with time. However, if they do not, it is important to take these symptoms seriously.

Firstly, it’s good to know how many hours a night your child should be getting at their age, in order to spot any problems they might be having.

  • Children from 3-5 years old ideally should be getting 10-13 hours sleep (including any naps).

  • Children from 6-12 years old ideally should be getting 9-12 hours sleep.

  • Children from 13-18 years old ideally should be getting 8-12 hours sleep.

It is very helpful to know the signs to look out for that indicate your child is not getting enough sleep and may be sleep deprived. Unsurprisingly, they can be very similar to babies.

  • They seem irritable or overly emotional

  • More clumsy

  • Lack of focus

  • Fall asleep in the car more often than not

  • Lack of energy

  • Incessant talking

  • Falling asleep in the day

Persistent sleep problems can be related to behaviour or, sometimes, a medical condition. Behaviour-based persistent sleep problems happen at bedtime or during the night and may include:

  • Bed wetting

  • Sleep talking/walking

  • Restless/moves a lot

  • Bruxism - grinds teeth in the night

  • Alarmed by dreams

  • Awakens screaming/sweating

  • Bedtime resistance - calling out and getting out of bed

  • Having trouble getting to sleep because they need you to help settle them

  • Waking up often during the night

  • Sleep anxiety - needs a parent in the room, afraid of the dark, afraid of sleeping alone.

  • Sleeping at irregular times – for example, going to sleep much later on some nights, which could mean they aren’t getting enough sleep.

With behaviour-based sleep issues there are many ways to encourage good sleeping habits, and help improve sleep issues for older children.

  • Consistency works! Even as they get older, children thrive on routine. Stick to a bedtime that suits you and them.

  • Bedtime routine. Experts recommend that we should have no screen time for at least an hour before bed – this includes adults! The blue light from the screen can really affect sleep, just as having a device such as a TV in your room could contribute to poor sleep habits. Adding lavender oil drops to your child’s bath, or hanging lavender in their room, can encourage a calm mood before bed.

  • Avoid talking about their worries before bed. As with adults, if spoken about before bed, worries can play on your child’s mind.

  • Positive reinforcement. Working on a reward chart with your child, no matter what their age, it can really be a good incentive for good sleep behaviour. For example, earning a sticker each day for a week to receive their reward can be really satisfying for children. Try to make the goals attainable to start with, which helps build up their self-confidence.

  • Diet and Exercise. I have spoken before about the importance of diet and exercise on sleep. Too little or too much exercise can be harmful, but one hour of moderate daily exercise, broken into 15 minute intervals, is ideal. Avoid rich, heavy food too soon before bed, as it places a greater load on the digestive system. Equally, avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening. Some foods, such as Dairy food, bananas, nuts and seeds, are shown to promote sleep.

  • Positive associations. Try not to send your child to their room for punishment. This one is tricky, even for me, because if your child refuses to sit on the step or won’t sit on the time-out mat, then sometimes the only option is their room. If you have another option then ideally use that one first, however I appreciate that sometimes, bedroom time-outs work the best.

  • Circadian Rhythm. It is important to encourage natural light early in the morning, as this helps set your child's circadian rhythm which will intern help nighttime sleep.

  • Family time. Nothing makes your child feel more comfortable and secure than spending time with you. Try and give them the attention they need in the day (or before bedtime) and they may not come looking for it in the night.

But what if you’ve tried all of the above and your child is still suffering from sleep deprivation? There are some persistent sleep problems that might need some kind of medical treatment, and so it’s always important to know what to look out for if their sleeping problem persists. The most common of these are:

  • Obstructive Sleep Apnoea – where the child stops breathing, snorts and gasps in their sleep

  • Narcolepsy - Overwhelming feeling of tiredness or suddenly falling asleep during the day

  • Restless Leg Syndrome - Cannot stop moving legs and describes an uncomfortable feeling

  • Constant Nightmares

  • Delayed sleep phase – when a child’s circadian rhythm needs resetting

If you are concerned that your child may need medical help due to their sleep, always ask your GP.

Find out more about Sleep by Alexandra

Sleep by Alexandra helps your family sleep better so you can enjoy more time together. Alexandra Collingbourne is a sleep consultant specialising in safe, holistic methods of getting your baby, toddler or young child to sleep in a way that empowers parents to live better, happier and with more energy. Specialist postnatal depression & anxiety support is also available for those who need it.

● View baby and toddler sleep services from Sleep by Alexandra here

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