Dr Mark Rosenthal

MD MB ChB FRCP FRCPCH BSc

Consultant in Paediatric Respiratory Medicine

also specialist in Food Allergies & Disorders of Sleep

A | A | A

T: 0207 351 8832

E: s.harvey@rbht.nhs.uk

A:The Royal Brompton Hospital, London, SW3 6NP

What Are Three Common Sleep Problems in Early Childhood?

Every parent knows that there will be times when your child just won’t go to sleep. However, some children have more serious sleep problems that can keep going for weeks or months at a time. When you’re tired and dealing with an even sleepier kid, it can be difficult to recognise the problem. Many parents assume that it’s just a normal part of childhood, even when lack of sleep is having a serious impact on their child’s health and wellbeing.

How Common Are Sleep Problems in Children?

Every child will have a restless night or the occasional tantrum at bedtime. However, some kids will have the same problems over and over again. Serious sleep problems are relatively common in children of all ages. Around 8000 children under the age of 14 were admitted to hospital with sleep problems in 2016.

Children might struggle to get to sleep, wake up a lot at night, or wake up before they are fully rested. If this happens frequently or keeps having over a long time then it can affect children’s physical and mental health. Children who sleep poorly can be at higher risk of infection, obesity and emotional problems. Lack of sleep can also affect educational attainment in older children, so it’s important to tackle these issues as soon as possible.

Does Your Child Have a Sleep Disorder?

The best way to tell if sleep problems are serious is to look at the impact they are having on your child. When children aren’t getting as much sleep as they need there can be some dramatic effects on their daytime behaviour.

Signs that your child might have a sleeping disorder include:

  • Drowsiness or falling asleep during the day
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Hyperactivity

Common Types of Sleep Problems in Young Children

Sleep problems come in many different forms, some of which are more likely to happen in early childhood. The most common sleep problems in young children are:

1. Problems Getting to Sleep:

Getting your child to settle down at bedtime can seem impossible sometimes. Choosing the right bedtime and developing a relaxing bedtime routine can be enough to overcome this common problem. However, it can sometimes be linked to anxiety. Some children can get to sleep fine as long as you are there, but can’t do it if you leave the room. It can take a while to overcome this, but by reassuring them and returning a few times to the room for a goodnight kiss, you can gradually help your child to sleep by themselves. It’s a form of separation anxiety that you can tackle in the same way as you do when leaving them with a babysitter or at daycare.

2. Not Being Able to Get Back to Sleep:

Most of us wake up a few times in the night, but we just drift back to sleep without being aware of it. This isn’t always as easy for young children to do, so they will lie awake, try to get up too early, or start crying. Children need to learn how to self-soothe once they’re old enough to sleep the whole night through. Making sure the bedroom is dark, quiet and comfortable can help. It’s also important to give children a chance to soothe themselves once they’re old enough, rather than rushing it at the first sound or movement. Use a monitor to keep an eye on them and try to interact as little as possible if you do have to go in.

3. Nightmares:

Nightmares can happen at any age, but while we can usually laugh them off, it can be terrifying for a child to wake up from a bad dream. If your child has a nightmare or is afraid of the dark, it’s important to reassure them and help them calm down. For most children, this is only an occasional problem. However, if your child often suffers from nightmares there could be an underlying issue. It’s important to talk to your child about the dream and how they feel in general as there could be something making them anxious or upset. A soft nightlight or a security blanket or toy can also make a big difference.

Although these are the most common kinds of sleep problems in early childhood, it’s important to remember that children can be affected in many different ways. If you’re at all worried about your child’s sleep or it seems to be affecting their daily life then it’s important to seek help.

What Should You Do If Your Child Has a Sleep Problem?

If you think that your child might have a sleep disorder then there are a few steps you can take to try to solve it yourself. The most important thing you can do is to create a sleeping environment and bedtime routine that will encourage your child to rest well:

  • Bedrooms should be dark, quiet and free from distractions such as tablets and TVs
  • A comfortable bed with a supportive mattress is essential
  • Watch out for any health problems such as eczema that could be affecting your child’s sleep
  • A small snack and drink before bed can prevent children waking up because they’re hungry or thirsty. It’s also important to use the toilet before bed to avoid accidents.
  • Heating and bed clothes should be used to create a cool but comfortable temperature
  • Quiet time with no screens should help your child wind down for at least an hour before bed
  • Following the same routine at bedtime is important: a warm drink, relaxing bath, bedtime story and getting tucked in will all help

Getting bedtime right isn’t always as simple as it sounds, especially if your child has a serious sleep problem. If none of this works or you need some extra help then it’s time to get expert help. Take your child to see a sleep specialist to find out what’s wrong and what more you can do to get a good night’s sleep.

Do you have any more tips for a relaxing bedtime routine?