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Answers to Common Childhood Sleep Problems

Most kids fall asleep quickly, but these situations can throw a wrench in things.

Sleep is critical for growing kids’ health and development. To get the most out of sleep, it’s important to follow a consistent bedtime schedule so that children can achieve the full number of hours needed for their age group: Preschoolers should sleep 10 to 13 hours a night, while grade-schoolers need 9 to 11 hours.

Even with the best plan, children occasionally develop sleep issues, interrupting the normal routine and making it hard to get things back on track. Many of these nighttime challenges are developmentally related, meaning they will disappear as a child ages so patience and time are often the best treatment. But some situations are a little more complicated and may require parents or pediatricians to take action. Learn how to handle some of these common child sleep issues.

Nightmares and Night Terrors

Although they sound similar, nightmares and night terrors are two different things. About a quarter of children ages five to 12 will experience nightmares. These scary dreams typically occur during the REM sleep stage and may startle children awake suddenly, a recipe for tears. Dealing with nightmares is relatively straightforward: Hugs and reassuring words that it was just a dream go a long way to soothing an upset child. Nightlights can offer an additional sense of security, so the room isn’t totally dark.

Night terrors are much less common than nightmares and happen during the non-REM stage of sleep. During these episodes, children remain asleep but may shout, thrash around, and maybe sleepwalk even though they won’t recall the details in the morning. Despite the instinctive desire to try and wake the person up, this is unlikely to work and may escalate matters. Parents should remain calm for a sleepwalking child, be prepared to follow and guide the child back to bed. As scary as it can be to watch, night terrors are rarely remembered by kids in the morning. If they occur regularly, parents should keep a diary of their child’s sleep habits over the course of a week or two and share it with their pediatrician.

Bed-Wetting

About 15 percent of potty-trained kids under age five will occasionally have a nighttime accident. Bed-wetting can be caused by deep sleep, an overly full bladder, constipation, or illness. If it happens once in a while, the best approach is to minimize the focus on the accident, as anxiety over bed-wetting may cause kids to be fearful of falling asleep. Instead, parents should focus on improving a child’s odds of nighttime success by not offering liquids too close to bedtime and making sure their child has a pre-bed bathroom visit. If bed-wetting is becoming an ongoing problem, speak with a pediatrician.

Difficulty Falling Asleep

While most active kids drift off quickly, difficulty falling asleep could be connected to blue light exposure from electronics. This glow can interfere with the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls the child’s sleep-wake cycle. To lessen this likelihood, keep cell phones, iPads, laptops, and the TV out of your child’s bedroom and power down these devices at least one hour before bedtime. Parents can set a good example by heading to bed on time themselves and leaving cell phones and other electronics to charge outside of the bedroom.

Snoring and Sleep Apnea

While the common cold can cause children to breathe heavily or snore for a few days, ongoing snoring that is loud and gasp-like in nature could be a sign of sleep apnea, a medical condition. Other health issues such as enlarged tonsils or adenoids may also be behind the snoring. Although only one to four percent of kids experience sleep apnea, it can be hard for a parent to determine the cause of a child’s snoring, so it’s best to make an appointment with a pediatrician for advice.