Monday, January 25, 2016
Helping children get a good night’s sleep
Picture this: You wake up with no alarm, the birds are singing, the sky is blue, and you feel well-rested and ready to take on the day.
Most of us will admit that this is far from our reality. With busier work schedules, extracurricular obligations, and the age of electronics, sleep deprivation has become a national epidemic. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one third of the adult population in the United States gets less than the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep each day. What is even more concerning is the increase in sleep problems seen in children and teens who are most at need of a good night’s sleep.
While lack of sleep in adulthood can impact one’s health and mood, the effects are even more drastic in babies, older children, and teens, whose bodies and brains are still under development. Lynelle Schneeberg, PsyD, the Director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at Connecticut Children’s Hospital Sleep Center, notes that poor immune function, weight problems, and nightmares and night terrors are all associated with a lack of sleep. In addition, because growth hormone is released cyclically in the body and peaks at night, there can be significant consequences on child growth and development.
The problems do not end there. Lack of sleep can lead to challenges academically as well as impact classroom attentiveness. Sleep deprived children often present with irritability and tantrums, which can affect them academically as well as socially. The Journal of Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology also suggests that children and teens with sleep deprivation are at a higher risk for emotional disorders such as depression and anxiety. If patients have been previously diagnosed with these disorders, a lack of sleep can worsen symptoms.
What is preventing adequate sleep in children? Dr. Schneeberg suggests that the answer is two-fold. She explains that sleep problems often stem from “problematic sleep onset associations” as well as “a bedtime routine without a clear final step.” Problems with sleep onset typically mean that a child will only go to sleep when the parent is present. Thus, when the child wakes up in the middle of the night, rather than turning over and going back to sleep, they get out of bed to find their parents. This leads to disruption in sleep for both the child and parent.
Poor bedtime routines can lead to children attempting to extend the time until they have to go to sleep. This may mean asking to read another book, watching another television show, or having a parent tell another bedtime story. The Journal of Adolescent Health reports that increased extracurricular activities, homework, and jobs as well as early school hours can contribute to lack of sleep in teenagers. In addition, increasing school pressure and anxiety can lead to trouble falling and staying asleep in teens.
Fortunately for the younger population there are ways to help. Parents can establish firmer bedtime routines with children. Dr. Schneeberg recommends encouraging your child to fall asleep on their own. In addition, removing all electronics from the bedroom for people of any age can lead to significant improvement in sleep. Research suggests that such devices are not only a distraction from sleep, but that the blue wavelengths emitted from their screens are associated with suppressing melatonin in the body. Melatonin is a hormone important for the regulation of sleep and altering its levels can result in sleep problems. Finally, helping teenagers learn how to manage stress and relax before bed through reading or yoga can help address anxiety that may be contributing to trouble falling asleep.
If a parent has established clear routines, removed electronics from the bedroom, and still finds that there is a problem they can turn to a sleep physician at a sleep center accredited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine to eliminate other causes such as restless legs syndrome, sleep walking, or sleep apnea. The sleep physician may then refer to a behavioral sleep specialist who will work with the family to establish a nighttime routine and address other contributing problems to sleep deprivation like stress and anxiety.
So put down that third cup of coffee and consider how you can improve your family’s sleep habits. Healthy sleep habits for your children will help them avoid associated mental and physical health problems and even help you get better sleep as well. I can’t promise that you will automatically become a morning person, jumping out of bed with a smile on your face, but you may find you have a little more energy to tackle your day and enjoy with family.
Katelyn Cusmano is a Backus Hospital Volunteer and a UConn Medical School MD Candidate for the class of 2018. This advice should not replace the advice of your personal health care provider. To comment on this column or others, visit the Healthy Living blog at www.healthydocs.blogspot.com or e-mail Ms. Cusmano or any of the Healthy Living columnists at firstname.lastname@example.org.