Family 411: What to do when babies can’t sleep

The quest for a good night’s sleep is one of the main reasons parents take their children to a pediatrician.

But doctors familiar with sleep disorders say the issue is often more about behaviour than it is about medicine.

“In my private practice it’s a very common concern, ‘My child doesn’t sleep,’ ” said pediatrician Dr. Wilma Arruda, Island Health medical director of childhood and family health.

“It can start at a very young age and it can cause a fair bit of trouble for a family,” Arruda said in an interview. “As parents, we also need our sleep.”

She said it is entirely appropriate for parents to take their sleep concerns to a doctor. Family doctors are typically the first to be consulted. If further expertise is required, a referral can be made.

Parents should be aware, however, there is likely no easy, medical answer.

“[Doctors] can’t just give them a pill and all of a sudden the kids are falling asleep every night and it’s all perfect,” Arruda said.

“In many cases it is a behavioural situation,” she said. “A lot of things around sleep are related to certain behavioural adaptations that kids will make. And it takes some effort to a manage those behaviours into something that might be more suitable for a family.”

She and other doctors say concerns about children’s sleep appear to be increasing. One suspected reason is the increase in the rates of childhood obesity. Fat in the neck can obstruct the airway, causing snoring and often a cessation of breathing.

Another reason may be the reluctance of parents and doctors in recent decades to remove tonsils. If tonsils become enlarged, they can obstruct the airway.

There is also an increased awareness of the neurobiological disorder of ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Children with ADHD often say they have trouble sleeping — and the lack of sleep aggravates the challenge of their disorder.

Dr. Atul Khullar, medical director of the Northern Alberta Sleep Clinic in Edmonton, said any parent seeking help for a child with a sleep problem should consider keeping a log.

“It’s extraordinarily helpful,” Khullar said. “You can start to see the triggers yourself and that’s really helpful to a doctor.”

He said in his practice, where he treats mostly teens but also some young children, the No. 1 reason for sleep trouble is anxiety.

“We see a lot of kids with the first onset of an anxiety disorder,” Khullar said. “It doesn’t necessarily require medication, but some sort of acknowledgment of the anxiety, perhaps getting them into some sort of therapy or group, is helpful.”

Khullar also said a growing realization is dawning of the medical importance of sleep. An entire family needs to recognize and work to ensure everyone gets a good night’s sleep, he said. Parents and children should acknowledge and speak to its importance and develop good sleep habits.

“Kids tend to model what their parents are doing,” Khullar said. “A kid starts out OK, but they start imitating the maladapted behaviour of their parents.

“The parents, if they have sleep problems, they tend to pass them along to their children — subconsciously, but they do.”

WARNING SIGNS

Snoring. Children who struggle to breathe, noisily pause, gasp or choke at night are at risk for obstructive sleep apnea, a treatable condition.
Difficulty falling or staying asleep. Everyone, adults included, has occasional problems falling asleep. But chronic insomnia can make it difficult for children to stay focused and alert during the day.
Sleepwalking, night terrors or other nighttime activities. Many children walk, talk or cry out during sleep. If these incidents become frequent, parents should seek help to learn potential triggers.
Sleeping too much. Children who have trouble waking up in the morning, getting to school on time or fall asleep in class have clear signs of a sleep problem.

Snoring. Children who struggle to breathe, noisily pause, gasp or choke at night are at risk for obstructive sleep apnea, a treatable condition.
Difficulty falling or staying asleep. Everyone, adults included, has occasional problems falling asleep. But chronic insomnia can make it difficult for children to stay focused and alert during the day.
Sleepwalking, night terrors or other nighttime activities. Many children walk, talk or cry out during sleep. If these incidents become frequent, parents should seek help to learn potential triggers.
Sleeping too much. Children who have trouble waking up in the morning, getting to school on time or fall asleep in class have clear signs of a sleep problem.

TIPS FOR SLEEPING

Make sleep a priority. Without a good night’s sleep, kids will have trouble participating fully in school, homework, sports or play.
Develop a bedtime routine. Everyone needs a short period of calm time before bed.
Keep schedules consistent between weekdays and weekends. Sleeping in a bit on Saturdays or staying up a little bit late is OK. But try to keep the flex to 45 minutes.
In fact, keep schedules consistent every day. Going to bed and getting up around the same time trains the brain to account for the hours needed for regular activities.
Make the bedroom restful. TVs and videogames are distracting and can produce a bright light that signals the brain to wakefulness.
Sleep in the same place every night. Children who sleep on the couch, on the floor, or in different beds have more trouble developing good sleep habits.
Avoid caffeine. Soft drinks, coffee, tea or energy drinks can keep children and adults awake.
Put your child to bed when they are sleepy, but not fully asleep. Self-soothing and relaxation are good skills for children to learn. Putting them to bed before they are fully asleep gives them a chance to develop them.
Address anxiety. Anxiety makes sleep difficult for everyone.
Source: The Sleep Disorders Clinic, Kennedy Krieger Institute, Baltimore.