Everything you need to know to help your children sleep better

By Jane Doucet on May 17, 2012
According to research, having a new baby typically results in 750 hours of lost sleep for parents in the first year. For some moms and dads, sleep deprivation continues. Surveys have shown that 68 percent of moms are chronically sleep deprived, falling short of the sleep we need at least a couple of nights each week. All of this can lead to conditions such as depression, weight gain, irritability, fatigue and even insomnia. Here’s everything you ever needed to know to help your children sleep better, and you too.

Advances in technology have changed people’s sleeping patterns over the past century. It began with the  invention of the light bulb in the late 19th century to today’s proliferation of TVs, computers and handheld  devices being used in bedrooms. “Studies show that we’re sleeping less today than we did 100 years ago,” says Dr. Shelly Weiss, a neurologist who specializes in children’s sleep disorders at Toronto’s SickKids Hospital and the author of Better Sleep for Your Baby & Child.

Sleep deprived children are no different than sleep-deprived adults: They can’t focus on simple tasks, and they’re irritable and more susceptible to getting sick. 

“Sleep is as essential to our well-being as food and water,” says Dr. Weiss. “It gives us time to rest our bodies and our brains, and increases our ability to deal with serious infections.”

Technology isn’t the only thing that could be derailing your child’s sleep. Sleepwalking, insomnia and night terrors can wreak havoc on the entire family’s sleep.

Sleepwalking

Also called somnambulism, sleepwalking occurs most commonly between four and six years and usually stops by age six or seven, although two percent of adults will continue to sleepwalk. Most children sleepwalk in the first couple of hours after they fall asleep. About 15 to 40 percent of all children have sleepwalked once, but only one to six percent sleepwalk often.

That’s the case for Jen and Rory Buchalter’s daughter, Zoe. In 2006, Zoe, then two, started sleepwalking two nights a week. At around 11 p.m. one night, they heard a noise upstairs. When they checked Zoe’s bedroom, their daughter was  standing in front of her mirrored closet, moving her hands up and down in the air like a belly dancer.

“I said, ‘Zoe, what are you doing?’” recalls Jen. “She stopped and looked at me with her eyes open but glazed, and I realized she was still asleep.”

Instinct told Jen not to touch her daughter, so she said, “Zoe, let’s go to bed.” Zoe followed her mother back to her bedroom, lay on her bed and didn’t stir from that position until morning. This became a familiar pattern. Jen and Rory decided not to mention it to Zoe, since she didn’t appear to have any recollection of what had happened.

When Jen realized she had a sleepwalker on her hands, she searched the Internet and also mentioned it to Zoe’s pediatrician, who said that it wasn’t uncommon and that she would probably outgrow it.

“Usually Zoe tries to complete a task when she’s sleepwalking,” says Jen. “She has brushed her teeth, changed her clothes and moved a stool to the window to look outside.” Sometimes she speaks and explains what she wants to do, but usually she’s silent. Jen verbally guides her back to bed.

“The most important thing with children who sleepwalk is to ensure their
safety,” says Dr. Weiss:
  • Don’t put a lock on their bedroom door in case a fire breaks out in the night.
  • Do block stairway access with a baby gate, as the Buchalters did to prevent Zoe from falling.
  • Don’t wake your sleepwalking child. Instead, let her finish the episode, then lead her calmly back to bed without touching her; she’ll naturally fall back to sleep without your help.

Dr. Weiss doesn’t believe there’s any need to tell your child she sleepwalks, unless it’s to explain the presence of a safety feature such as a baby gate. In such a case, keep the explanation brief and lighthearted, then don’t mention it again; you don’t want to give her cause to be anxious about her sleepwalking, which might cause other sleep problems, such as being anxious about falling asleep.

Today Zoe is eight. “I haven’t had a solid night’s sleep in five years!” laughs Jen, who always has one ear tuned to Zoe’s bedroom throughout the night.

Over the years, Zoe’s sleepwalking gradually decreased from twice a week to once a week to once a month, but when she started Grade 2 this past fall, she began sleepwalking almost nightly. And so the sleepless nights return.

Insomnia

This is the most common childhood sleep problem, and can occur from infancy to early adolescence. It’s characterized by difficulty falling asleep at night, trouble sleeping through the night or waking too early in the morning. “Insomnia isn’t one disorder but a symptom that can be caused by many different problems,” says Dr. Weiss. “In children, it’s most commonly caused by behavioural problems.”

For example, it’s a natural part of growing up for your son to try to test the limits at bedtime to see what control he has over his parents. But if you don’t set proper sleep limits, this tug of war results in him getting inadequate sleep. If you are tired in the evening, it can be tough to enforce a regular bedtime for your son, and it doesn’t help if you and your partner disagree on what the limits should be. If after you put your son to bed, he demands more stories, more songs, more water and more visits to the bathroom, a behavioural problem is causing his insomnia.

The best approach to improve your child’s sleep is to deal with one behavioural issue at a time, and to be patient during the process. Also keep in mind that each problem is an acquired habit, not a sign of inadequate parenting. If you think your child has insomnia, discuss it with his pediatrician.

Night Terrors

Watching your child have a night terror is a scary experience. He may sit up abruptly in bed, let out a loud panicky scream, act in a confused and frightening way, begin to sweat with his heart racing and look terrified. A stressful event, experience or sleep deprivation can prompt a night terror, which can be followed by sleepwalking. As with sleepwalkers, don’t touch a child having a night terror. This could increase his agitation or make him react violently.

“Night terrors aren’t harmful to the child, and in general they don’t mean there are any emotional or psychological problems in your child,” says Dr. Weiss. “However, if they’re persistent or they start after age six, they may represent some underlying problems.” If that’s the case, speak to your child’s pediatrician.

Jane Doucet is a freelance writer based in Halifax. Her last feature for ParentsCanada was about a mother and daughter losing weight together on the reality TV show, X-Weighted.

Originally published in ParentsCanada, May/June 2012

Photography: Media Bakery


By Jane Doucet| May 17, 2012

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