Sleep is a funny thing when it comes to littles. Parents agonize over how to help their child be a good sleeper, making sure that they are instilling healthy sleep habits by creating good routines and a consistent schedule, and trying their best to not create “bad habits”. But the fact is, even if you do all of that, your child can still experience some challenges with their sleep, with some of these challenges seeming to be a bit uncommon in the world of sleep.
However, short of a medical diagnosis of sleep apnea or the rarely diagnosed insufficient melatonin production, many of these more uncommon sleep challenges can still have simple explanations and be more easily resolved without having to go to the doctor and invest in medical intervention.
Nonetheless, these more common sleep disorders can have a serious impact on sleep and it is important to know what is causing the sleep disruption and how you can address the issue at hand. Over the years, between myself and medical and dental providers, we routinely see the following five sleep disorders in our pediatric clients:
Sleep Disorders in Children created by Zen Triangle Dentistry.
That’s a pretty scary looking list, isn’t it? The good news is that all of those disorders can be resolved with making some simple changes!
This is probably one of the most common things that I hear about with my toddler and preschool clients, with their parents having concerns about nightmare and night terrors. First let’s unpack the two labels and discuss the differences and then we’ll delve into night terrors.
Nightmares and night terrors tend to be used interchangeably among parents, and they shouldn’t be.
They are two different events and are caused by different triggers. Nightmares are sleep disturbances in which your child, while in REM sleep (where dreams occurs) cognitively experience a scary event during their dream that causes them to wake up suddenly. But once they are awake, the scary event is over and the child, while they may be upset, is keenly aware that they are awake and in their own beds and are able to respond to comfort. Nightmares also tend to not be limited to a certain time of the night after the child falls asleep – they can occur in the early night, middle of the night (most common), or in the early hours of the morning.
However, night terrors are different. Night terrors tend to occur earlier in the night, typically around 90 minutes – 2 hours after the child goes to bed. When the child is in the throes of a night terror, they are not truly awake, nor do they recognize their surroundings or are aware of who is with them. Night terrors can also take a while to run its course, anywhere from a few minutes before the child “snaps” out of it or lasting nearly 30 minutes. However, trying to rouse your child out of the night terror will oftentimes backfire on the parents. The child oftentimes will continue to cry, scream, and fight to get away from the comfort being offered, or appear that they don’t even realize that you are there. Additionally, successfully rousing the child from the night terror can lead to the child getting more upset as the mind is still in “panic” mode and become disoriented. As tough as it is, the best thing for parents to do is sit near their child and be ready to offer assistance once the child truly awakens.
Night terrors are most often triggered by the child being overtired. Moving bedtime up early will help the child not be overtired when they fall asleep. Additionally, for the first few nights after adjusting the schedule, you can go to your child shortly before the time they typically would experience the night terror, about 10-15 minutes, and lightly rouse them to disrupt the sleep pattern and allow them to go back to sleep. Also ensuring that the bedroom is a calming environment and teaching your child some calming breathing techniques, such as imagining that they need to fill their belly with air and blow an imaginary feather to the end of their bed and have them do it five times will help ease some of the anxiety.
Sleepwalking is believed to have some genetic ties, though the most common cause for sleepwalking is overtiredness or an irregular schedule. Additionally, most children who sleepwalk due to a genetic pre-disposition will outgrow the disorder by their teen years. Providing a consistent sleep schedule and having an early bedtime will help eliminate the vast majority of sleepwalking events. Additionally, parents can also go in and lightly awaken their child shortly before the sleepwalking event typically occurs to disrupt the sleep pattern. Keep in mind that you do not want to wake your child if they are in the middle of a sleep walking episode. Do your best to keep them safe, but allow them to “ride it out” and then guide them back to sleep once the episode is over.
Teeth Grinding or Bruxism
This is a less common complaint that I hear about, but I know several pediatric dentists who see plenty of cases involving teeth grinding. For younger children, grinding their teeth is something that they do to alleviate the discomfort they feel while teething. However, for many parents, the sound is highly irritating, and it also raises the valid concern of the overall health of the teeths and gums being negatively impacted. Pediatric dentists often recommend engaging in some oral massage to relieve discomfort, or having your child’s doctor prescribe a safe oral-numbing prescription. For older children, who are chronic teeth grinders due to anxiety, a mouth guard can be made at the dentist’s office for them to wear at night.
I hear about this one a lot, particularly with my clients who are in the midst of potty training. There are a variety of reasons of why your child wets the bed, though the most common one being that the child is taking in too much fluids too close to bedtime. Rule of thumb is to limit liquid intake up to two hours before bedtime, note I said limit, not eliminate. Also make sure that your child uses the toilet before the start of the bedtime routine, and right before they get into bed. However, going accident-free all night is something that can take up to 6 years for a child to be able to do on a regular basis, so it is also important not to place too much pressure on your little one to “hold it” or to get upset if they were to have an accident. Get your child cleaned up and calmly change their sheets and pajamas and put them back to bed. Also work with your child to have them practice getting out of their bed, pulling down their pajamas and underwear or pull up, and using the toilet on their own so it can feel more natural and less intimidating at night to attempt. Another thing to do is to provide a nightlight in the hallway and the bathroom that stays on overnight so they can see – some children are more nervous about the dark than having an accident in bed, so making sure that they can see their way around can also help ease that concern.
This is one of the top reasons why I get hired to work with families with children that are school-aged. The child generally does not have any difficulty falling asleep, but they either struggle to stay asleep or find themselves wide awake in the early hours of the morning. The biggest culprits are generally the preparation (or lack thereof) of getting ready for bed and letting the child watch tv or play on their smart screens too close to bedtime. Having a consistent bedtime routine that involves a warm bath or shower, quiet downtime, and screens off at least an hour before they go to sleep can help alleviate this issue a lot. Late bedtimes are also a big culprit – children still require 10-12 hours of overnight sleep even going into middle school, so making sure that they are going to bed early enough to get that much sleep is also key.
Need more help?
If your child has been experiencing any of these more common sleep disorders, implementing some of these easy changes should help eliminate these occurrences and allow your little one to get the good night’s rest that they (and you!) need. If you’re not sure if these steps are the right ones to take for your child, don’t hesitate to sign up for a quick call with me to talk about it and we will figure out how you can best support your child in overcoming these challenges.
I am a Pediatric Sleep Consultant who works with families to help them resolve their littles' sleep issues. As a mom of two littles herself, Katie has walked in the shoes of her clients and is passionate about helping them re-discover peaceful sleeps in their own homes.