Sleep and the Mental Health of Young Children

By Maggie M. Ethridge

Researchers have found a link between a lack of  and mental health in children. While many toddlers (and their parents!) struggle with sleep, researchers recently found that four year olds with serious sleep disorders—like repeated night terrors, , or insomnia – are at significantly higher risk for anxiety and depression by age six, according to a large study done by the psychology department at The Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Of course, many young children go through brief phases with sleep problems, such as refusing to go to bed, or waking with nightmares. This doesn’t mean they have a sleep disorder! Most children will outgrow their sleep issues. So how do you know if your child is suffering from perfectly normal sleep disruption, or a sleep disorder?

UCLA Health notes that while night waking, balking at going to sleep, tossing and turning, and needing consistent assistance falling asleep are normal, if these behaviors continue on after common sense measures have been applied, it’s best to check with your pediatrician.

After diagnosis, there are many therapeutic interventions that can greatly assist a child in getting a good night’s sleep:

For night terrors, effective interventions include daily exercise, yoga, and a practice called “imagery rehearsal treatment”, where the child repeatedly imagines how they would like to have their dreams play out, thereby changing the actual dream.

Sleep apnea is typically treated with a machine nicknamed the ‘CPAP’– standing for “continuous positive airway pressure”– which is a mask placed on the child’s nose to provide more oxygen during sleep.

The most common sleep disorder in children is insomnia, the inability to fall asleep and stay asleep for the night. According to a national survey, insomnia seriously impacts 29% of kids seen by child psychiatrists. Studies have shown that sleep deficiency changes brain activity, and if a child is not getting enough sleep– or enough good quality sleep– you may notice them having trouble making decisions, solving problems, controlling their emotions and behavior, and coping with change. As psychiatrists Oskar G. Jenni and Monique K. LeBourgeois say in their paper on sleep disorders in children, sleep loss “may influence cognitive and emotional functioning, school performance, and mood.”

Parents and caregivers can assist a child struggling with sleep. Common recommendations are to turn of all screens ( T.V., computer, phones ) at least one hour before bedtime, remove caffeine and most sugars (including white bread products such as cereals or crackers, which turn immediately into sugar in the body) from the child’s diet, create a stable, calming bedtime routine that you participate in with the child each night, and ensure that there are no lights present in the room (such as bright outside light coming through curtain, or computer light ) with the exception of a night light if needed. Also refrain from feeding the child a large meal in the hour before bedtime, as digestion can disrupt sleep.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends the amounts of sleep children require by age:

Ages 1-3: 12-14 hours of sleep per day

Ages 3-6: 10-12 hours of sleep per day

Ages 7-12: 10-11 hours of sleep per day.

Tags:  homeless Sleep sleep apnea

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