What Is Childhood Insomnia
Childhood insomnia is not often talked about, but is a very real issue. Signs may not be obvious, unless you have a child overtly acting out, and sleep deprivation is identified as the main issue.
Childhood insomnia is the same as it is in adults where children can't fall asleep, stay asleep, or sleep until the next morning.
Unfortunately identifying childhood insomnia is made difficult because symptoms largely overlap with seemingly normal child and teen behavioral changes:
- Acting out
- Being tired all the time (we might ask ourselves, "Is it just a growth spurt?")
- Difficulty concentrating
The difference between childhood insomnia causing such problems and normal childhood development is that one is normal, and one is likely preventable.
Causes of Childhood Insomnia in Young Children
Causes of childhood insomnia in young children tend to differ from teenagers. For one, younger children tend to have much less free access to distractions such as TV, smart phones, social media, and so on. Also, they lack the extreme changes that are characteristic of puberty.
Often, causes of childhood insomnia in younger children are environmental:
- No structure or routine around bedtime
- A lack of requisite sleeping space that is quiet, distraction free, and dark
- No set bedtime
- Lack of ideal pre-sleep habits, such as no food, limited drink, "quiet time"
For parents who have tried everything to get their child comfortable and ready for bed but it still is a struggle to get/stay asleep, there may be other factors at work:
- Stress in life (i.e., divorce)
- Stress at school
- Rapid physical changes, such as growth spurts
- Restless leg syndrome
- Parasomnias, such as sleep walking or chronic night terrors
- Side effects of certain medications - and we are mostly talking about some ADHD medications
- Obstructive sleep apnea
Trying to observe your child during their sleep may help you narrow down how and when such symptoms are expressed.
Causes of Childhood Insomnia in Older Children (Teenagers)
Puberty has the unique side effect of making a young adult feel about as close to an alien as is possible. Puberty takes an enormous toll on children, including:
- Extreme hormonal changes
- Developing sexual awareness
- Personal identity awareness and development (a nice way of saying "identity crisis")
- Extreme physical changes
- Extreme psychological and emotional (again, hormones) changes
- Rapid change in importance and awareness of peer acceptance
- Large rise in stress to perform in academics and sports (i.e., high school)
- Onset of certain disorders, such as autoimmune diseases
- Distractions! social media, TV, phones, internet, laptops, etc.
Speaking from personal experience, I struggled greatly with insomnia in early high school for many of the reasons listed above. Especially for children in competitive academic and athletic environments, the stress and anxiety of these pursuits can, when paired with puberty, be extremely stressful and their sleep will suffer as a direct consequence.
As parents, this can be frustrating because you want your children to be happy and succeed, so it's hard to know how to help sometimes.
Symptoms and Consequences of Childhood Insomnia
Symptoms of childhood insomnia reflect those of adult insomnia. They may differ in how they are described, though, because of developmentally appropriate differences in behaviors. Symptoms include:
- "Acting out"
- Sudden onset of lethargy and exhaustion during the day
- Chronic fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
- Memory problems
- Rapid emotional changes
The consequences of such problems are not hard to imagine. In short:
- Decreased academic performance
- Decreased athletic and extracurricular performance
- Lower quality of life
As said, the important point to keep in mind with these symptoms is context: are the symptoms caused by sleep deprivation or are they due to normal childhood development.
Treatments for Childhood Insomnia
Treatments for childhood insomnia will vary a lot depending on the age of the child and the causes for their symptoms. There are three different categories in which to organize possible causes of childhood insomnia:
- Insomnia as a result of normal development
- Insomnia as a result of personal stressors
- Insomnia as a result of external factors
Therapy can often be an effective treatment for children of any age whose insomnia is caused by personal stressors or normal development.
Being staunch about bedtime routines, bedtimes, the sleeping environment, and personal habits before bed for children of any age is also an effective method of limiting external factors that cause insomnia. This includes making sure rooms are dark and quiet, baths before bed, essential oils, no food before bed, and a consistent routine in the hour before bedtime. With younger children, you have direct control over such things. With teenagers, you have less direct control but largely have much say and influence over promoting healthy bedtime factors.
Consulting with your pediatrician about potential medical reasons for the insomnia, such as obstructive sleep apnea in your child, medications causing problems, or medical related side effects of getting older (hormones, growth spurt pains, etc.)
Finally, sometimes simply talking to your child and communicating a sense of flexibility in expectations about academic and extracurricular performance can be a big stress relief for children as they tend to want to please parents, and may be sacrificing their own health to do so.
If you live in Alaska and are concerned that your child is dealing with problems related to sleep deprivation and childhood insomnia, our sleep specialist can provide insight. Contact us: