Childhood Sleep Disorders a Sign Of Exhaustion, Stress

Health Minute

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Common childhood sleep disorders – such as sleepwalking, sleep talking and night terrors – can be a sign that a child is not getting enough sleep or, in some cases, is experiencing new stress during the day, says pediatrician Tammy Taylor, DO. Most of these disorders do not signal a serious medical issue, Dr. Taylor says.

Up to 15 percent of children between the ages of six and 16 are sleepwalkers, according to the American Academy of Pediatric (AAP).  Up to 5 percent of children experience night terrors.

Sleepwalking, Sleep Talking And Night Terrors

Many of these episodes can be alarming to a parent as they watch a peacefully sleeping child suddenly scream out from their bed or begin walking haphazardly around the home. 

Sleepwalking is when a sleeping child sits up in bed or gets out of bed and walks around, appearing awake, but acting unresponsive to those around them. Young sleep walkers may stumble around their room while others venture around the house. In extreme cases, children have been known to unknowingly walk out the front door. There is a higher incidence of sleepwalking with children who experience bedwetting.

Night terrors can be much more alarming. A night terror is when a sleeping child suddenly screams out, appears frightened, and thrashes about their bed with no response to comfort. A night terror spell can increase a child’s heart rate and leave them sweating. Both sleepwalking and night terrors can be accompanied by sleep talking where a child verbalizes a string of words or sentences that make no sense to those around them.

“All three of these sleep disorders typically start an hour to an hour and a half after a child falls asleep,” Dr. Taylor says. “Even though children appear awake in most of these incidences, they are not able to respond to their name or comfort measures. It can often concern parents and leave them wondering what is happening to their child.”

Managing Childhood Sleep Disorders

Dr. Taylor recommends the following steps to help children manage these sleep disorders:

Practice a bedtime routine. Create a sleep schedule for your child that may include several steps prior to getting into bed that tells the body it’s nearing bedtime. This may include a bath, reading a book, or a couple minutes of quiet time. Make sure to conclude the use of electronics such as the television or personal devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime.

Wake a child preemptively. Night terrors often follow a pattern. Parents may find that their child experiences night terrors about one to two hours after going to bed. Parents can help their child prevent a night terror by gently waking them about 15 minutes before a night terror typically happens. “This helps to reset their sleep cycle,” Dr. Taylor says.

Comfort the child. Opinions can vary as to whether it is best to wake a child while they are sleepwalking or sleep talking. Regardless, it’s important to gently guide a child back to bed if they have gotten out of it. It is nearly impossible to wake a child from a night terror. Therefore, it is best to offer comfort in the moment. This may mean staying near them in bed until the episode passes or providing a nightlight for those who are fearful of the dark.

Safeguard your child. Install gates at the top of stairs and place locks high on exterior doors to help keep children safe in the event that they get up in the night and begin walking around. Also, consider placing bedrails on the side of beds to prevent a child from falling out during a night terror.

Create a sleep diary. It can be helpful for a parent to track a child’s sleep patterns in a diary and then share that information with the child’s physician. Things to track include where the child sleeps, how much sleep he gets at night, what he needs to fall asleep, how long it takes for him to fall asleep, how often he wakes up during the night, what is done to comfort him when he wakes, and if there are any stresses or changes in the home. Parents should track the information for up to two weeks before sharing it.

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