Insomnia complaints in children are usually associated with lack of restorative sleep (deep sleep and REM sleep). A child is said to have insomnia if they (1):
- Have difficulty falling asleep at night
- Have trouble staying asleep at night
- Wakes up very early, at around three in the morning and have difficulty going back to sleep.
This can lead to a significant impairment in the child’s body functions during the day. Insomnia can be long-term, wherein the child has trouble sleeping for at least three weeks or more, or short-term, lasting for just a few days. MomJunction will tell you everything you need to know about insomnia, what causes it, and how to help your child deal with it.
Causes Of Insomnia In Children
Insomnia can be primary, which means it is a problem in itself, or it can be secondary, where it is a symptom of a medical condition. Here are some reasons that contribute to childhood insomnia, primary or otherwise.
Stress is one of the primary causes of insomnia in children, especially teenagers (3). Children can be stressed, just as adults. If the child complains of sleeplessness, talk to them to figure out what is wrong.
Check with teachers and guardians at school to ensure everything is fine there. Most importantly, ensure that everything at home is running smoothly. Children are highly sensitive, and domestic squabbles in the house can disturb children and keep them awake at night.
Certain medications, such as drugs used to treat depression and anxiety, anticonvulsants, and corticosteroids, can have side-effects affecting the child’s eating and sleeping habits (4).
3. Psychiatric, medical, and other sleep disorders
Certain medical conditions could be responsible for insomnia in children. Some children might face physiological insomnia due to anxiety and excess worrying, medical conditions such as arousal disorders, restless leg syndrome, snoring, nighttime sleep behaviors, obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, upper airway resistance syndrome (5).
Children with behavioral disorders such as ADHD could also suffer from sleeping disorders (6). We cannot say these are the primary causes for insomnia in your child, as these disorders have other symptoms and need a proper diagnosis by a doctor.
4. Use of caffeine
Drinking beverages with high caffeine content can also prevent the child from sleeping well at night. This is especially the case with teenagers who drink sodas that have high caffeine content. Nicotine may also lead to sleeplessness at night (7).
5. Environmental factors
A peaceful and quiet environment is necessary for undisturbed sleep. Even a sound sleeper may have difficulty sleeping in a noisy environment. If your child is a light sleeper, they might have a tough time falling and staying asleep when the ambiance is not right.
Symptoms Of Insomnia In Children
Besides sleeplessness, here are some symptoms that might indicate childhood insomnia.
- Waking up early in the morning sleepy during the day
- Unable to pay attention to tasks at hand or school
- Making silly mistakes
- Hyperactivity – a common symptom among children who don’t get enough sleep
- Trouble remembering things
- Discipline issues at home and school
- Irritable, moody
Children with insomnia may also feel lethargic and tired all the time (8). However, this symptom could also indicate the presence of an underlying medical condition, so it is best to monitor your child’s sleep if they are feeling tired during the day.
Diagnosing Insomnia In Children
Insomnia in children cannot be diagnosed through any special test or diagnostic procedure. If you suspect that your child has trouble sleeping every day, you might want to watch out for the symptoms we mentioned earlier. If the child displays these symptoms over a period, seek a medical professional’s help for diagnosing any sleep or psychological disorders.
Management And Treatment For Insomnia In Children
Insomnia treatment is mostly home care and creating a conducive environment for sleeping. Medications for insomnia are not usually prescribed to children and adolescents, except in special circumstances where it is the only way to get the child some rest.
Also, not all adult insomnia medications or supplements approved by the US FDA can be used for children (9). So, always consult with your child’s doctor before administering any prescription or over-the-counter drugs for your children.
Non-medicinal treatments are usually considered as the first line of treatment for insomnia in children. These include:
1. Lifestyle changes
In most cases, changing the child’s lifestyle can help fight insomnia. You should pay attention to:
- The environment in the child’s bedroom. Look around the room and check if there is too much light, nagging noise, or the temperature is uncomfortable.
- The clocks in the room are not noisy. It is good to have a clock in the child’s bedroom as long as it does not disturb the peace and calm of the room.
- How relaxed is the child? If the child is tensed, anxious, or scared about something, they will find it difficult to sleep. Help the child relax through relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or meditation that can be practiced before bedtime.
- You may also use light, soothing music to induce restful sleep.
2. Setting up a routine
Insomnia can be short-term, but some children end up dealing with it for the most part of their lives. To remove that possibility, institute healthy sleep habits early in their life.
- Set a bedtime to create a routine and adhere to it, no matter what. Whether it is a school day or vacation time, children should be in bed when the clock says “bedtime”! The time when the child wakes up must also be consistent so that they get enough sleep every day.
- Create a bedtime ritual or routine with soothing activities such as a bath and storytime that help relax the muscles and mind, thereby inducing sleep.
- Avoid giving the child any caffeine-induced drinks or foods at least four to six hours before bedtime. Also, if the child wakes up in the middle of the night, tell him to indulge in calming activities such as meditating or reading, instead of just tossing and turning in the bed.
3. Behavioral therapies
Counseling might help in deciding the kind of therapy to be used. If a child is unable to express their feelings, art-based therapy can help in determining the issue and can also be a great release technique for the child.
Treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapies and hypnotherapy are used to deal with the underlying psychological disorder leading to insomnia in children. These involve sleep-onset association and limit-setting. Sleep-onset association results from negative sleep associations, which means that the child needs a parent, a comfort item, or a soothing activity to fall asleep.
Limit-setting is when the child throws a tantrum during bedtime and refuses to sleep when they should. Or the child can stall going to bed by asking for a snack, a glass of water, another bedtime story, and so on (10).
Homeopathy might be useful to treat insomnia in children. However, consult a professional doctor before trying these medications for your children (11).
5. Emotional freedom technique (EFT)
If the sleeplessness is due to anxiety, fear, phobias or stress, EFT and tapping can be a useful modality in the management of insomnia. EFT is the use of rhythmic tapping at various points on the body to release stress and induce sleep. Consult a professional to enquire if this would work for your child.
Note: The medications and therapies should be used only when the lifestyle changes fail to reduce insomnia in your children. Also consult your child’s doctor before going for any of the alternate therapies (12).
Insomnia In Children: Natural Remedies You Could Try
Natural remedies could aid behavioral and lifestyle changes to reduce insomnia. But if your child has an underlying condition that is causing insomnia, then it is best to consult your child’s doctor. Also, teaching children to sleep naturally, without external aids, can help them have healthy sleeping habits even as adults.
This section is about natural remedies that might help the child to fall asleep.
- A sleep satchel might be used as an accessory that relaxes the senses and induces sleep. Fill a cloth or netted bag or satchel with dried chamomile flowers, lavender flowers, rosebuds, and lemon balm and leave it by the child’s bedside.
- A glass of warm milk can be soothing and help the child sleep. Studies say that melatonin in the milk might help to induce sleep (13).
- Traditionally chamomile extract mixed with water is said to have a mild sedative effect, which could help in calming nerves and reducing anxiety (14). So, a cup of unsweetened chamomile tea, given to the child before bedtime, could be relaxing and sleep-inducing. But before you do, make sure your child is not allergic to chamomile tea.
- A warm bath with a few drops of lavender or chamomile oil might have a calming effect on the child. The aromas relax the body and help in sleeping (15) (14).
- Sometimes, exercise or physical activity in the evening could also help sleeplessness in children who are not otherwise active.
- Dietary intake of magnesium may have long-term benefits and would likely reduce daytime sleep (16). So, eating magnesium-rich foods such as almonds, pumpkin seeds, and green leafy vegetables before bedtime can help.
- Valerian root is a natural sedative that can help with insomnia. However, there could be few adverse effects, and safety on the long-term usage is not determined. Also, valerian root should not be used for children younger than three years (17).
- Passionflower might help to reduce insomnia. However, there are not many studies to determine the safety of passionflower for children. So, do not give your child this remedy without consulting with your doctor (18).
- John’s wort is likely to reduce insomnia and anxiety and is usually available in supplement form. However, it should not be given to children younger than six years. Also, as these supplements are usually not FDA approved, you need to seek doctor’s advice before giving it to older children (19).
If your child is on medication or if you are consulting a medical practitioner to treat your child’s insomnia, talk to them before trying these herbal remedies. When used appropriately, these herbal and natural home remedies might help the child fight insomnia and develop healthy sleeping habits.
Sleep Healthy, Live Healthy
Your child needs proper sleep for healthy growth and development. Regardless of the activities that your children indulge in during the day, they should be resting and relaxing at night. If they are not, you know what to do!
Have tips to help children beat insomnia? Share them with us in the comments section.
2. Stress and Sleep; American Psychological Association
3. How Medicines May Affect Sleep; National Sleep Foundation
4. Pediatric Sleep Disorder Types; Stanford Health Care
5. ADHD and Sleep; National Sleep Foundation
6. Jennifer L. Temple; Caffeine Use in Children: What we know, what we have left to learn, and why we should worry; NCBI(2009)
7. Jennifer Vriend and Penny Corkum; Clinical management of behavioral insomnia of childhood; NCBI(2011)
8. Barbara T. Felt, MD, MS, and Ronald D. Chervin, MD, MS; Medications for sleep disturbances in children; NCBI(2014)
9. Jennifer Vriend and Penny Corkum; Clinical management of behavioral insomnia of childhood; NCBI(2011)
10. Sleep Problems (1998); British Homeopathic Association
11. Donna Bach et al.; Clinical EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) Improves Multiple Physiological Markers of Health; NCBI(2019)
12. Xiao Meng et al.; Dietary Sources and Bioactivities of Melatonin; NCBI(2017)
13. Janmejai K Srivastava, Eswar Shankar, and Sanjay Gupta; Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future; NCBI(2010)
14. Peir Hossein Koulivand, Maryam Khaleghi Ghadiri, and Ali Gorji; Lavender and the Nervous System; NCBI(2013)
15. Yingting Cao, et al.; Magnesium Intake and Sleep Disorder Symptoms: Findings from the Jiangsu Nutrition Study of Chinese Adults at Five-Year Follow-Up; NCBI(2018)
16. Valerian; National Institutes of Health
17. Passionflower; Milton S. Hershey Medical Center
18. St. John’s wort; C.S Mott Children’s Hospital
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