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Sleep problems in children are common, and most of us experience problems with sleep deprivation at some point while we’re growing up. If such problems persist, they can have serious negative effects on health and development. That’s why it's important to look out for the warning signs and act as soon as possible.
Sleep is essential for babies’ development and health. There’s a demonstrated positive relationship between the quality of a child’s sleep and his or her level of happiness, cognitive ability, attention span, general mood, stress management skills, vocabulary development, ability to learn and memory. Also, when babies are asleep, growth hormones are secreted, which are important for physical growth. And it seems that for young children, sleep is especially important for processing memories, as well as improving motor ability.
Sleep is largely controlled by the hormone melatonin, which is produced in the pineal gland and has a significant contributing effect to feeling sleepy. The secretion of melatonin is controlled by, among other things, how bright it is, and is at its highest when it’s dark outside. In this way, the hormone regulates the circadian rhythm, and is important for getting a good night's sleep.
Children need different amounts of sleep at different stages of their development, as their circadian rhythms usually change as they get older. So if you want to give your child the best opportunity to experience healthy development, it’s important to be aware of current guidelines.
A child’s need for sleep varies according to age, as is shown below:
In a nutshell, the older a child gets, the less sleep he or she needs. However, there are individual differences, and in addition to the number of hours, the quality of sleep a child gets is important.
Sleep can be divided into four different phases:
If sleep problems start suddenly, they're often caused by a change in the child's life. In addition to getting older, other changes can provoke sleep problems, such as teething, new siblings, illness, new places or changes in routines or schedules.
In some cases, a sleep disorder may be a sign that the child has an infection or other physical ailment. This is especially important to bear in mind for very young children, who can’t communicate how they feel, or point to where it hurts. So just be aware of any potential physiological problems by, for example, checking your child’s temperature to see if he or she has a fever.
That’s not all. If you want to give your children the best possible conditions for healthy development and general well-being, there are several other important things to know about sleep disorders:
Noisy environments at home can have a negative effect on a child's sleep. These disruptions can be caused by conflicts between family members or a more serious lack of security and the child not being cared for problem.
For the vast majority of children, sticking to clear rules and routines is important for a healthy lifestyle. Eating and sleeping at regular times can contribute significantly to your child getting a good rest at night. Also, it's better for children to actually fall asleep in their beds and not be carried there from wherever else they’ve dozed off. The bed then becomes a safe space that the child associates with sleep.
When children reach adolescence, it can be more difficult to influence their routines. One way to give your teenager a good chance of going to bed on time is to follow similar routines yourself as their parent, and not stay up long after they’ve gone to bed.
Research indicates that too much screen time just before going to sleep lowers the quality of sleep. Lamps and other lights can also disturb a person’s circadian rhythm. This appears to be due, among other things, to the fact that they can affect melatonin secretion in the body. Under natural conditions, this hormone controls your circadian rhythm by being secreted when the sun’s gone down and it’s getting dark.
It’s usually easy to spot that a child hasn’t slept properly. Bad sleep often makes itself known in either a bad mood or hyperactivity. Attention spans are often affected, which can make it difficult for parents and teachers to communicate with the child. In the long run, sleep disorders can have a negative effect on schooling and cause a child to fall behind in their academic development. When the child falls behind their classmates, this can in turn lead to social problems and exclusion.
There are also direct links between a lack of good sleep and poor physical health and development. Tired and inactive children are at risk of becoming obese and suffering from obesity-related diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes. Not getting enough sleep has also been linked to other stress-related illnesses.
Sleep seems to be important for children's sorting of memories, as well as their motor skills. In addition, it’s important for physical growth, as growth hormones are mainly secreted when babies are asleep.
In order for children to have the best chance of learning new things – especially in preschool or school - it’s important they sleep well. Tired and worn-out children lose concentration more easily and can exhibit ADHD-like behaviour.
Poor sleep can cause children to become irritable and in some cases act out. There’s also an increased risk of depression for children who don’t get enough sleep, just like adults. When it comes to physical health, there are links between lack of sleep and several common diseases as a result of the negative effect bad sleep has on the immune system. Examples of such diseases are diabetes and high blood pressure.
Sleep disorders can be caused by a number of different factors, but the result is often the same - a lack of sleep. Here are some common causes of sleep disorders as well as valuable tips on how to think and act as a parent when you notice problems.
Nightmares are especially frightening for younger children because they often lack the ability to distinguish what’s real from what happens in their dreams. As a rule, nightmares occur during REM sleep. As a parent or relative, the best thing you can do if you your child has a nightmare is give them a sense of security and calmly help them fall asleep again. Be aware that nightmares are especially common during periods of illness and fever.
Although they don’t usually lead to the child waking up, night terrors are just as frightening as nightmares, if not more frightening. They tend to include both violent movements and screams. It’s not necessary for you to wake up an affected child, but if night terrors happen several times a night, and at about the same time each night, you can try waking the child before they usually happen and keep him or her awake for a while in order to avoid the problem.
If your child only talks in his or her sleep, it’s nothing to worry about. It often takes place during the superficial sleep stage, and the worst that can happen is that it might disturb others who are sleeping in the same room. In some cases, however, sleep talking can be related to other more serious sleep disorders such as nightmares and even sleep deprivation.
The problem: research shows that every third child will sleepwalk at least once before the age of thirteen. Since sleepwalkers usually have no perception of their surroundings and don’t remember the event afterwards, this problem entails certain risks.
What to do: make sure that the room where your child sleeps is safe and possibly install an alarm. If there are stairs next to the room, it might be a good idea to install a gate to prevent the child from falling. To stop your child from sleepwalking, you can try waking him or her about half an hour before it normally happens. The child can then fall asleep again and hopefully not sleepwalk again during the night.
The problem: just like adults, children can snore while they sleep, and this can be due to swollen tonsils, allergies or obesity.
What to do: treat the cause of the problem with allergy medicine, exercise and, if necessary, surgery, to get rid of the symptom that causes the snoring.
The problem: If you notice excessive snoring, or your child stops breathing from time to time, your child may be suffering from sleep apnea. This disorder often leads to the child's sleep being disturbed and causes him or her to wake up several times during the night. The resulting sleep deprivation has negative consequences, such as fatigue, difficulty concentrating and hyperactivity.
What to do: If you notice the above signs in your child, you should have them examined by a doctor to investigate if they have sleep apnea, especially if the lack of sleep can’t be explained by anything else. Often, the measures taken to resolve the issue are the same as for snoring, for example tonsil surgery.
Sleep is important for everyone, whether they are adults or children. One difference is that adults can often do something about their sleep problems, either on their own or by seeking the help of others. In addition, adults are generally better at controlling the symptoms that occur in connection with sleep deprivation and can function more or less as normal in everyday life.
Children have more difficulty controlling their emotions and are usually affected more quickly and more obviously by sleep disorders. Unlike most adults, they lack the ability to take responsibility for their own quality sleep and generally don’t understand that their bad mood is linked to a lack of sleep. That’s why it’s up to adults to do something about young people’s sleep problems. After all, sleep is just as important for children as it is for their parents.