Does Your Child Have a Sleep Disorder?

It’s not just about being drowsy during the day. Hyperactivity, poor grades, and social problems are all potential consequences of a childhood sleep disorder. According to a University of Arizona study conducted this year, kids with sleep apnea are six times more likely to have behavioral problems, and seven times more likely to have learning disabilities. The good news? Sleeping disorders are highly treatable. Here's how to spot the signs in your child.   

1. Insomnia
The inability to fall and/or stay asleep is the most common of all pediatric sleeping disorders, affecting about 25 percent of all children, says Dr. Rosenberg.

Signs: Daytime fatigue/napping, inability to get up on time, and moodiness are all signs of this sleep disorder. “After they finally do get out of bed,” explains Rosenberg, “kids have a tough time getting themselves going.”

Next steps: The first step is improving your child's sleep hygiene­, or habits that can help their circadian cycle. For toddlers and preschoolers, a set bedtime and wake-up time, along with a bedtime routine like a bath and story, is key. For older kids, the problem is often technology use right before -- and often in -- bed. Light, including from electronics, suppresses melatonin, the sleep hormone. Pull the plug (literally, if you must) on computers, tablets, and Smartphones two hours before bed.

For all ages, nix caffeine (including sneaky sources like some clear sodas, sports drinks, vitamin-infused beverages, and chocolate) six hours pre-bed.

It seems logical that tiring a kid out will encourage sleep. Actually, the opposite can be true. Tag, sport practices, even rousing Wii games within two hours of bedtime raise the core body temperature and make it harder to nod off. 

If none of the above seem to help, a call to the pediatrician is a must.

2. Sleep Apnea
If your child is suffering from sleep apnea, she may stop breathing periodically during sleep. This disorder is more common in younger children than teenagers, peaking between the ages of 2 and 8.

Signs: Younger sufferers are often hyperactive, which can be mistaken for ADHD. Other signs include snoring, bedwetting after age six, and frequent sleepwalking, notes Rosenberg. In adolescents, look for unexplained grogginess. Other signs include an inability to pay attention in school and forgetfulness.

Next steps: An overnight sleep study, usually performed at a hospital-run facility, will diagnose sleeping disorders like sleep apnea. Not to worry: you’ll sleep there with your child, and the rooms are usually quite comfortable. If the diagnosis is confirmed, you’ll discuss solutions – like removal of your child’s tonsils and/or adenoids, or nightly use of a CPAP machine. There are no shortcuts, though. “You have to have a sleep study first before any insurer will pay for a CPAP machine,” notes Rosenberg.  

3. Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome
This sleep disorder affects a child’s circadian rhythm, the natural cycle that regulates sleep patterns.

Signs: Children have a hard time getting up, staying awake in school, and actively participating in social events.

Next steps: If you suspect delayed sleep phase syndrome, start keeping a sleep diary. Write down when your child falls asleep and wakes up, including any middle of the night rousings. Also note any problematic episodes, such as a teacher report that your child nodded off in class. After doing this for at least two weeks, take the information to your pediatrician, who will diagnosis the sleep disorder based on your child’s medical history and your notes.

If it’s your child is diagnosed with delayed sleep phase syndrome, treatment typically includes bright light exposure in the morning and keeping the child’s bedroom completely dark at night. “Stick to a strict bedtime/wake-up schedule, and don’t vary it on days off from school,” instructs Rosenberg. You may want to consider a melatonin supplement at bedtime for delayed sleep phase syndrome, but check with your pediatrician first.  

Sleeping disorders or not, there are a few simple steps that can help the whole family get a more refreshing night's sleep. Cool is better than warm in bedrooms: 65 to 70 F is ideal, says Rosenberg. Avoid strong, unpleasant odors -- that means no late-night painting projects for you, and no manicures in bed for your tween daughter. Lastly, there's anecdotal evidence that the scent of lavender encourages sleep. Sweet dreams!