A good night’s sleep may seem like a unicorn to new parents, but for some families, a child’s sleep disorders can mean years of problems if left unaddressed.
Jonathan Hintze, a pediatric sleep medicine physician with the Greenville Health System’s Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders, said there are a variety of reasons why children don’t get enough sleep – or enough quality sleep – but the most common are obstructive sleep apnea and insomnia.
“For obstructive sleep apnea, it can happen at any age, from rarely in infancy to adult,” Hintze said. “The problem is that when we are awake, all the muscles in our body have the ability to be more taut.”
But we lose that in sleep. If air meets resistance, it can result in a fluctuation in oxygen levels and poor quality of sleep.
“Even if you are in a bed an appropriate amount of time sleeping, the quality of sleep is very poor,” Hintze said.
As a result, children (and adults) can be irritable and sleepy.
Tonsils may also be the culprit in some cases.
“The tonsils are often a cause of the obstruction,” Hintze said.
That can be especially true for preschool and elementary ages when tonsils are larger.
“It’s normal for everybody to have bigger tonsils at that age,” Hintze said.
Children who are experiencing problems in school can be “like night and day,” according to Hintze after tonsil removal or after addressing whatever is causing their sleep disorder.
“For kids who are not getting enough sleep or poor quality sleep, the symptoms are being hyperactive during the day, bouncing off the walls, trouble focusing,” he said. “A lot of kids are labeled with ADHD and it could be sleep.”
Insomnia in children can vary depending on age, but Hintze said it can impact the entire family.
“You see young children, even infants, disrupting their parents’ sleep,” he said. “Most of the time it is behavioral insomnia of childhood.”
In other words, some babies have trouble soothing themselves back to sleep. But for older children and teens, the problem may be external.
“Electronics are one of the biggest causes,” Hintze said. “They engage your mind rather than help you wind down. They shine bright lights in our eyes that can affect melatonin production.”
Hintze advises removing electronics at night, even though children and teens might protest.
“That’s often a big battle played out right here,” he said. “It’s a simple fix, but not necessarily easy.”
So how much sleep should children get? That depends on a lot of factors, Hintze said. For example, some children with autism spectrum disorders seem to require less sleep than their neurotypical peers. Asking how many hours of sleep are required is a bit like asking what is the right size shoe for a 6-year-old, Hintze said.
Hintze said fixating on a number of hours may even increase anxiety which can affect sleep. Instead, look for simple fixes, like removing electronics and reducing or eliminating caffeine, and talk with your child’s pediatrician if you have concerns.
“Everybody is different,” he said. “I try to get people away from focusing on a number so much and focusing on how they are doing. The goal should be to fall asleep with relative ease, stay asleep and wake up feeling well and being able to function.”