Awake all night. Sleepy all day. No fun for anyone.
Everyone needs a good night’s sleep. Especially children ages 3 to 5 who should get 10 to 13 hours of sleep to stay healthy and alert. But what happens when issues like bedwetting, sleep terrors and sleepwalking get in the way?
A pediatric sleep specialist weighs in
According to Anne Marie Morse, DO, pediatric neurologist and director of the Department of Child Neurology at Geisinger Janet Weis Children’s Hospital, many sleep disorders stem from keeping an inconsistent sleep schedule.
“Keep regular bedtimes and wake times even on weekends,” she says. “That might solve the problem. If your child continues having sleep issues, keep a sleep a diary and record exactly what happens. Note the time, what your child last ate, when they ate it and any unusual event or experience that might have been the trigger.”
What to do about bedwetting (besides laundry)
It’s embarrassing for the child and aggravating for the parents — but wetting the bed is not considered a sleep disorder unless it happens at least twice a week for a child who’s at least 5 years old. “We also need to look at whether the child ever stayed dry for six months straight,” says Dr. Morse. “If they haven’t, the issue might be hormonal and can be corrected with medication.”
Bedwetting can be caused by social or mental stress or by a physical problem such as sleep apnea — where airways become blocked and the child wakes suddenly to breathe.
“Be very patient with your child if they’re wetting the bed at night,” says Dr. Morse. “Praise them on the nights they stay dry and minimize their anxiety as much as possible. Have them use the bathroom right before going to bed, wake them periodically during the night to use it again and try to limit the amount of fluid they consume in the late afternoon and evening.”
Sleep terrors (aka night terrors). A nightmare for the entire family
If your child sits up in bed screaming and shouting, and it’s hard to wake them, they may be experiencing sleep terrors.
“Sleep terrors usually happen with children between ages 4 and 12,” Dr. Morse explains. “It’s very upsetting to watch, and it’s natural to want to wake them up to comfort them. But this is actually not a good idea and can make the sleep terror feel worse and last longer.”
Keep a sleep diary to record when sleep terrors occur. If you see a pattern, wake your child up 15 minutes or so before one is likely.
“The good news with sleep terrors is they tend to go away on their own when kids become teens,” says Dr. Morse.
Hearing footsteps in the night
“If one or both parents had sleepwalking episodes when they were children, there is a good chance their child will sleepwalk, too,” says Dr. Morse. “It’s really fairly common.”
When a child is sleepwalking, their eyes are open, and their expression is glazed. They’re unaware of where they are, so it’s very important that their environment is safe with windows closed, doors locked, a safety gate blocking the stairs and no sharp objects within reach.
“A sleepwalker of any age may be difficult to wake up and may be confused when they do,” says Dr. Morse. “Do not attempt to wake your child up. Just lead them back to bed as gently as possible.”
Maybe it’s time for a sleep study
If your child’s sleep issues don’t improve with time or after putting them on a regular schedule, it may be time to take them to a sleep specialist who will probably recommend a sleep study.
“Sleep studies are conducted in our specialized, and very child-friendly, sleep labs,” explains Dr. Morse. “Children stay with us overnight and wear special sensors that measure heart rate, oxygen saturation levels, breathing patterns, snoring and eye and limb movements while they sleep.”
Sleep studies can diagnose a variety of sleep disorders. Once the results are known, your doctor will work with you to find the right treatment program for your child. This could involve medication, surgery or simply modifying their habits and routines.
“Seeing a child blossom once their sleep issues are resolved is a beautiful thing,” says Dr. Morse. “They’re able to concentrate during the day. They don’t worry about going to bed at night. It’s a relief for the whole family.”