Understanding Childhood Insomnia

Reviewed by Dominique W. Brooks
Child awake in bed

Childhood insomnia is a common problem for kids that interferes with a child's ability to fall asleep or to stay asleep throughout the night. Insomnia disrupts the sleep cycle, and it diminishes the quality of sleep. The problem can be long term, or it can last just a few nights.

Reasons for Childhood Insomnia

Chronic stress and anxiety can trigger insomnia in children, and poor sleep hygiene can compound the problem. Some children also worry about nightmares and night terrors, which leads to fear of falling asleep. Other reasons for childhood insomnia include:

  • Staying up too late
  • Drinking too much caffeine
  • Being over-stimulated before bedtime (i.e., playing video games, texting or talking on the phone, listening to music, or watching TV before bed)
  • Having a hectic or inconsistent schedule
  • Lack of downtime
  • Being sick or coughing in the night
  • Breathing problems or asthma
  • Worries about school or conflicts with friends
  • Side effects from medications (i.e., those that treat depression and attention-deficient disorder)
  • Snoring or waking up in the night due to sleep apnea
  • Noise, cold, or heat in the bedroom
  • Medical disorders like heartburn, fibromyalgia, or thyroid disease
  • Psychiatric conditions like depression or bipolar disorder

Problems with Lack of Sleep

Like adults who have sleeping problems, childhood insomnia affects more than just the ability to rejuvenate the body and mind. Kids who do not get enough sleep may develop a number of problems, and even health issues. These include:

  • Mood and behavioral problems
  • Troubles at school and with grades
  • Concentration and memory difficulties
  • Issues with relationships
  • Depression and anxiety symptoms
  • Heightened aggression
  • Irritability
  • Increase in accidental injuries

Treating Insomnia in Children

On average, children under age twelve need about ten to twelve hours of sleep, while teenagers needs an average of nine hours. If your child is getting less sleep and it's causing problems, be sure to take steps to get your child back on track.

Establish a Routine

Establishing a bedtime routine long before it is time to sleep can help your child relax. This might include taking a warm bath, changing into pajamas, drinking warm milk or chamomile tea, or talking with a parent about their day. Sometimes, just a good night routine can help soothe a child to fall asleep. Consistency is very important as it instills a sense of security while establishing behavioral expectations. As part of the routine, you may want to avoid exciting activities like video games or exercise before bedtime.

Children benefit from knowing what to expect, and knowing what others expect from them, but some may need extra help to fall asleep. The sleep-wake cycle depends on external cues. For example, the body releases the sleep hormone melatonin as surroundings become darker. Cooler temperatures cue the body to prepare for sleep, which makes taking a warm bath a good idea because the body naturally cools down after the child gets out of the bath.

Develop Good Sleep Hygiene

Creating good overall bedtime habits will help with sleep now and in the future. To help children (and adults) get to sleep, it is a good idea to avoid caffeine for 4-6 hours before bedtime. This includes sodas, coffee, tea, energy drinks, and some chocolates. Going to bed -- and getting up -- at a consistent time can help a child who has problems sleeping. Keeping the bedroom comfortable -- dark enough for sleep but not too dark for children who might be afraid of the dark -- can also be beneficial.

Help Kids Relax

Relaxation techniques and visualization exercises can help to lull children to sleep. Techniques include tensing and relaxing muscles, deep breathing, and quieting the mind by visualizing peaceful and soothing images. It can also help to make sure the bedroom is dark and relaxing, feels safe and secure, and quiet.

Establishing a relaxing routine before bedtime can help a child calm and organize his or her behavior. Relaxation techniques offer relief from daily stressors, and they can be important elements in a consistent nightly regimen.

Address Health Issues

It's important to first look for any medical or psychological issues that might contribute to the insomnia. If a sleep disorder or anything mental, physical, or emotional is preventing a good night's sleep, this should be identified and treated. For example, if your child is diagnosed with sleep apnea, your doctor will start treatment.

Talking to a health professional can help address these problems early on so it is important to tell your provider about sleep issues.

Manage Time in Bed

The bed should only be used for sleeping. Children should not do their homework, read books, or watch TV in bed. Another important way to manage time in bed is to get up instead of staying in bed tossing and turning if the kid can't get to sleep. If a child has trouble at night, it is better for the child to spend 15 minutes doing a quiet activity and then getting back in bed. You can repeat this cycle as needed.

Consider Behavioral Therapy

Sometimes a child -- and the family -- may need some behavioral therapy to deal with sleep issues. A behavioral or cognitive specialist can work with the family using non-drug techniques to improve behaviors associated with sleep.

Medications

Sometimes medications are prescribed for childhood insomnia, but the first treatment for insomnia should be addressing medical or psychological issues. Some sleeping pills are not approved for children, so you would need to work with your to learn which medications are safe, and how to use them. More research is needed to understand how these medicines work in kids. Do not give your child over-the-counter pills for sleeping or herbal supplements before consulting a physician.

If You Need More Help

Chronic childhood insomnia can be an indicator of an underlying health problem, or it can indicate that there is a neurological problem that needs to be addressed. If your child continues to experience difficulties falling asleep and staying asleep, contact his or her doctor for guidance. Together, you can uncover triggers for the insomnia, and create a plan to alleviate the problem.

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Understanding Childhood Insomnia