Some practical and expert advice on what to do if your child is experiencing sleep disturbances.
For any parent to witness their child experiencing sleep disturbances such as sleep walking, nightmares and night terrors can be a very startling experience. However, it is not a representation of a psychological or emotional disorder. It is a representation of a maturing neurological system.
According to mum of four Lucy Wolfe, a paediatric sleep consultant; “Any of these presentations can be very unnerving for the observing parents, but typically the child is completely unaffected. Children with abnormal sleeping schedules may be more vulnerable to these sleep disturbances. Beyond the age of two, as many as 70 per cent of children will experience a sleep disturbance at some time.”
Types of sleep disturbances in children
1. Sleep walking
Sleepwalking can occur up to 12 times per year in around five per cent of children between the ages of six to 16 years old. An additional five to 10 per cent of children may sleep walk one to two times per year. It has been suggested that there is genetic factor also, and boys are more likely to experience this sleep concern.
Typically, sleep walking, a partial arousal parasomnia disorder, will occur within the first one to three hours of going to sleep when the brain is entering a slow wave type sleep. Despite the fact that your child appears to be awake, this is often not the case. “Each episode may last for up to 20 minutes and mostly parents will be ineffective here until the situation has passed. It is unlikely that your child will remember the next day,” explains Lucy.
A large concern with a sleep walker is safety, so it is a good idea to be prepared if your child has demonstrated a vulnerability to this disorder. Although your first instinct might be to wake your child up, you should not disturb them, Lucy explains. “Parents should be encouraged not to intervene, as waking your child may potentially upset your child unnecessarily. Gently guide your child back to bed and remain with them until they have settled back to sleep.”
Lucy’s top 5 tips on sleep walking:
1. Keep the floor clear of toys or large furniture that your child could stumble over.
2. Ensure that windows and doors are locked and secure.
3. Use a stair gate at the top of the landing.
4. Don’t allow your child to sleep in the top bunk.
5. Use an alert system like a bell hanging over their door to signal to you that your child is on the move
2. Sleep talking
A less worrying, yet a very common sleep disturbance, is sleep talking which is just as common in adults as it is in children. Where children are concerned, they more likely to talk in their sleep because the linguistic centres of the brain are highly stimulated, particularly in the preschool years.
“From three to ten years old almost 50 per cent of children will chat in their sleep at least once a year,” says Lucy. “Once again, boys may be more inclined to experience this sleep disturbance. It is not unusual for children to shout out simple phrases such as ‘I don’t want to’, or ‘go away’. There is no need to worry, it is a normal presentation.”
Nightmares are also a normal part of development and happen during the second part of the night during Rapid Eye Movement, better known as REM or ‘dreaming sleep’.
It is a very common complaint especially between the ages of three to six years, with studies suggesting that 25 per cent of children have at least one nightmare per week.
According to Lucy, ”A nightmare can be very alarming for a young child and the fear is very real: normally represented by being chased or stuck somewhere. Your child will typically call for you or come into your bedroom looking for reassurance and comfort that you should provide.”
It can be useful to avoid allowing your child to be exposed to scary or frightening images, programs or audio. Lucy suggests: “Carefully pick the type of books that are read at bedtime and be mindful of anything that may cause fear and anxiety. Talk to your child about what disturbs them, ideally during the day and consider a coping mechanism for scary thoughts like a monster spray, a magic wand or shield or a special stuffed toy to keep him or her safe.”
Lucy’s top 5 tips for dealing with nightmares:
1. If you are open to it, have the family pet share the room with your child.
2. Have siblings share, as long as they behave!
3. Don’t let them play with iPads or watch TV before bed.
4. Ensure that your child is relaxed ahead of bedtime, avoiding stimulating activity, televisions and computer games, for example.
5. Be mindful of what your child is seeing and hearing to avoid anxiety.
4. Night Terrors
Often parents would mistake night terrors as being a nightmare. However, the difference between the two can be easily identified; typically night terrors can happen within the first few hours of sleep, during deep ‘non-REM’ sleep.
Lucy explains, “During an episode, the child jolts awake from a deep sleep, wide eyes, frightened, screaming/shouting and possibly sweating with a racing heart. As this is a partial arousal disorder, your child is not awake, will not recognise you or realise you are there; he/she may push you away while at the same time call for you.
Unfortunately, this can last for up to 15 minutes and then end. Your child usually won’t even remember having the night terror. It can be very upsetting for us parents to witness our children so distressed; thankfully, they are not a representative of a psychological disorder.”
She continues, “Commonly, night terrors will happen within two hours of the onset of sleep, but I have experience in my practice of them happening throughout the night and/or the early part of the morning, but this is extreme and commonly a child who is not efficient at sleeping independently.”
So what is the single biggest cause of night terrors? “It is being over-tired. You need to ensure that your child gets enough sleep and this can in some instances diminish significantly and in others completely eliminate the phenomenon.” Even something as simple as sending your child to bed a half an hour earlier can hep. As Lucy suggests “As little as an extra 30 minutes of sleep at the start of the night can make all the difference.”
Lucy’s top 5 tips for dealing with sleep terrors:
1. Don’t try to wake your child, there is no benefit for them to be roused and they may be more upset on wake up, as they are not officially awake during the night terror.
2. Avoid touching or picking up your child as this can sometimes prolong the terror.
3. Ensure that your child is safe and cannot come to harm during his/ her thrashing about.
4. After the episode, guide your child back to bed.
5. Stay with your child and reassure them afterwards until they are calm and have gone back to sleep.
Lucy recommends that if there is regularity to the night terrors, by keeping a sleep diary you may be able to see a pattern. “If they are happening two to three times a week at the same time, you can try to pre-empt the partial awaking of your child 15 minutes before the episode typically happens; for example to help them roll over and stay with them until they go back to sleep. When this is implemented for up to ten nights, it may help to break the cycle.”
If you are in any doubt about your child’s sleep disturbances, it is advisable to seek medical advice.
About Lucy: Lucy Wolfe, CGSC, MAPSC, is a paediatric sleep consultant and mum of four young children. She runs a private sleep consulting practice where she provides knowledge, expertise and valuable support to families across the country. Visit: www.sleepmatters.ie
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