After a day of hiking, cycling, camping, and a hot shower, 10-year-old Elena thought she would fall asleep quickly! But at midnight, Elena was still up, tossing and turning in her bed. She tried everything from counting sheep to playing soft music but to no effect!
Falling asleep became an everyday battle for Elena, who was diagnosed with insomnia. Insomnia in children is not uncommon, but it can have an adverse impact on the child’s quality of life. MomJunction will tell you everything you need to know about insomnia, what causes it, and how to help your child deal with it.
What Is Insomnia?
We all may sometimes have difficulty sleeping. Sleeplessness is not a problem if it is once in a while. But if falling asleep is a challenge every day, then it could be insomnia, which is a sleep disorder or disturbance affecting both children and adults.
But first, here is a note on the five stages of sleep a person goes through (1).
- Stage 1 or light sleep is when the person drifts into and out of sleep and is aware of the surroundings to some extent.
- Stage 2 is where the eye movement stops and the brain waves and heart rate, slow down. This is the stage where the body is preparing for deep sleep.
- Stage 3 or deep sleep is where the very slow brain waves or delta waves intersperse with the faster, but smaller waves. This is one of the restorative stages of sleep where a person has nightmares, talks, or walks in his sleep.
- Stage 4 is also a deep sleep stage where the delta waves are prominent. When aroused from this stage of sleep, the child may seem disoriented for a few seconds or minutes.
- Rapid eye movement or REM sleep is when our bodies perform several functions that it does when awake. The brain is as active during sleep as it is during the waking hours. The child may be sleeping with eyes closed, but they move rapidly from side-to-side owing to brain activity or a dream.
Insomnia complaints are usually associated with lack of restorative sleep (deep sleep and REM sleep). A child is said to have insomnia if he or she (2):
- Has difficulty falling asleep at night
- Has trouble staying asleep at night
- Wakes up very early, at around three, in the morning and has difficulty going back to sleep
This can lead to a significant impairment in the child’s body functions during the day. Insomnia can be long-term, wherein the child has trouble sleeping for at least three weeks or more or short-term lasting for just a few days.
Causes Of Insomnia In Children
Insomnia can be primary, which means it is a problem in itself, or it can be secondary, where it is a symptom of a medical condition. Here are some reasons that contribute to childhood insomnia, primary or otherwise.
Stress is one of the primary causes of insomnia in kids, especially teenagers (3). Kids can be stressed, just as adults are, due to pressure at school, unrealistic fears of something or someone, peer pressure, etc. If the child complains of sleeplessness, talk to them to figure out what is wrong.
Check with teachers and guardians at school to ensure everything is fine there. Most importantly, ensure that everything at home is running smoothly. Children are highly sensitive, as domestic squabbles in the house can disturb kids and keep them awake at night.
Certain medications, such as drugs used to treat depression and anxiety, anticonvulsants, and corticosteroids, can have side-effects affecting the child’s eating and sleeping habits (4).
3. Psychiatric, medical, and other sleep disorders
Children suffering from mental health problems such as depression and anxiety tend to have difficulty falling asleep at times (5). Sometimes, other medical conditions such as muscle cramps, fibromyalgia, obstructive sleep apnea, growing pains, and other chronic problems can also prevent the child from getting a good night’s sleep.
Flu, chronic asthma, and other respiratory problems that create breathing trouble may also keep the child up at nights for weeks.
Children with behavioral disorders such as ADHD can suffer from sleeping disorders (6).
4. Use of caffeine
Drinking beverages with high caffeine content can also prevent the child from sleeping well at night. This is especially the case with teenagers who drink sodas which have high caffeine content. Nicotine may also lead to sleeplessness at nights.
5. Environmental factors
A peaceful and quiet environment is necessary for undisturbed sleep. Even a sound sleeper may have difficulty sleeping in a noisy environment. If your child is a light sleeper, then he or she might have a tough time falling and staying asleep when the ambiance is not right.
Symptoms Of Insomnia In Children
Besides sleeplessness, here are some symptoms that might indicate childhood insomnia.
- Waking up early in the morning Sleepy during the day
- Unable to pay attention to tasks at hand or at school
- Making silly mistakes
- Hyperactivity – a common symptom among kids who don’t get enough sleep Trouble remembering things
- Discipline issues at home and school
- Irritable, moody
Children with insomnia may also feel lethargic and tired all the time. However, this symptom could also indicate the onset of cold and flu, anemia, autoimmune disorders, and diabetes among others.
Diagnosing Insomnia In Children
Insomnia in children cannot be diagnosed through any special test or diagnostic procedure. If you suspect that your child has trouble sleeping every day, you might want to watch out for the symptoms we mentioned earlier. If the child displays these symptoms over a period, seek a medical professional’s help for diagnosing any sleep or psychological disorders.
Treatment For Insomnia In Children
Insomnia treatment is mostly home care and creating a conducive environment for sleeping. Medications for insomnia are not usually prescribed to children and adolescents, except in special circumstances where it is the only way to get the child some rest.
Also, not all adult insomnia medications or supplements approved by the US FDA can be used for children (7). Do not forget to check if the supplements against insomnia have been approved by the local drug control and regulatory authority.
Non-medicinal treatment could include:
1. Behavioral therapies
Treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapies, hypnotherapy, etc., are used to deal with the underlying psychological disorder leading to insomnia in kids. Sometimes, the therapist may have to work with the child and his or her family to determine the cause. Chances are that the child’s and parents’ sleep patterns may be linked.
Components of cognitive behavioral therapy can be used to treat behavioral insomnia in kids, which involves sleep-onset association and limit-setting (8). Sleep-onset association results from negative sleep association, which means that the child needs a parent, a comfort item, or a soothing activity to be able to fall asleep.
Limit-setting is when the child throws a tantrum during bedtime and refuses to sleep when he or she should. Or the child can stall going to bed by asking for a snack, glass of water, another bedtime story, and so on.
2. Lifestyle changes
In most cases, changing the kid’s lifestyle can help fight insomnia. You should pay attention to:
- The environment in the child’s bedroom. Look around the room and check if there is too much light, nagging noise, or the temperature is uncomfortable.
- The clocks in the room are not noisy. It is good to have a clock in the child’s bedroom as long as it does not disturb the peace and calm of the room.
- How relaxed is the child? If the child is tensed, anxious, or scared about something, they will find it difficult to sleep. Help the child relax through relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or meditation that can be practiced before bedtime.
3. Setting up a routine
Insomnia can be short-term, but some kids end up dealing with it for most part of their lives. To remove that possibility, institute healthy sleep habits early in their life.
- Set a bedtime to create a routine and adhere to it, no matter what. Whether it is a school day or vacation time, kids should be in bed when the clock says “bedtime”! The time when the child wakes up must also be consistent to get sufficient sleep every day.
- Create a bedtime ritual or routine with soothing activities such as a bath and story time that help relax the muscles and mind, thereby inducing sleep.
Avoid giving the child any caffeine induced drinks or foods at least four to six hours before bedtime. Also, if the child wakes up in the middle of the night, tell him to indulge in calming activities such as meditating or reading, instead of just tossing and turning in the bed.
Insomnia In Kids: Natural Remedies
Natural remedies for insomnia take away dependency on sleep medicines. Also, teaching children to sleep naturally, without external aids, can help them have healthy sleeping habits even as adults. This section is about natural remedies that can help the child fall asleep quickly, without getting addicted to the stimulant.
- A sleep satchel can be used as an accessory that relaxes the senses and induces sleep. Fill a cloth or netted bag or satchel with dried chamomile flowers, lavender flowers, rosebuds, and lemon balm and leave it by the child’s bedside.
- A glass of warm milk can be soothing and help the child sleep.
- A cup of unsweetened chamomile tea, given to the child before bedtime, can be relaxing and sleep-inducing.
- A warm bath with a few drops of lavender or chamomile oil can have a calming effect on the child. The aromas relax the body and help in sleeping.
- Sometimes, exercise or physical activity in the evening can be a good remedy to sleeplessness for kids who are not otherwise active.
- Lack of magnesium prevents the brain from relaxing at night. So eating magnesium-rich foods such as almonds, pumpkin seeds, and green leafy vegetables before bedtime can help.
- Wild lettuce is another safe remedy for insomnia in children.
- Valerian root is a natural sedative that can help your child sleep, and prevent him from waking up in the middle of the night. However, this must be used in limited dosages for the desired results. You can make tea with this root or take supplements that contain this herb.
- Passion flower, which is found in herbal supplements, can help in easing nervousness, anxiety, and mental exhaustion.
- St. Johns wort is a natural remedy used for treating insomnia as well as mild depression in children. This can be found in supplement form.
If your child is on medication or if you are consulting a medical practitioner to treat your child’s insomnia, talk to them before trying these herbal remedies. When used appropriately, these herbal and natural home remedies will help the child fight insomnia and develop healthy sleeping habits.
Sleep Healthy, Live Healthy
There is a good reason why we spend one-third of our lives sleeping. So do not take sleeplessness lightly. Your child needs proper sleep for healthy growth and development. Regardless of the activities that your children indulge in during the day, they should be resting and relaxing at night. If they are not, you know what to do!
Have tips to help kids beat insomnia quickly? Share them with us in the comments section.