Sleep problems in school aged children

Sleep problems in school aged children

While lack of sleep for babies is a much discussed topic, sleep problems for school age children can also cause considerable stress! Insufficient sleep can cause a wide range of both short and long-term behaviours, which in turn cause parents lots of stress and exhaustion!

Sleep problems in school aged children

A lot of behavioural and learning problems with school age children can be firmly linked to lack of sleep.

In an American Study involving 2,463 children aged 6-15, children with sleep problems were more likely to be inattentive, hyperactive, impulsive, and display oppositional behaviours.

Insufficient sleep can cause a wide range of problems including the following:

  • Difficulty with learning, particularly around memory and cognitive tasks
  • Hyperactivity
  • Agressive an disruptive behaviour
  • Not listening in class
  • Socialisation issues with other children
  • Not getting to school on time
  • Reduced immunity and missing more school due to illness

Sleep deprivation can also make other conditions worse, including exacerbating the symptoms of ADHD. Treating the sleep deprivation can reduce or elimate the ADHD symptoms, suggesting that many children being medicated for hyperactivity are actually just over-tired rather than needing strong medication.

Sleep apnea in children

Sleep apnea is a common cause of sleep problems and related behavioural issues with children.

Undiagnosed and untreated sleep apnea may contribute to both daytime fatigue and behavioral problems at school. For example, a recent study in CHEST, (the official journal of the American College of Chest Physicians), children who snored loudly were twice as likely to have learning problems.

Also following a night of poor sleep, children are more likely to be hyperactive and have difficulty paying attention. Apnea in children may also be associated with delayed growth and cardiovascular problems. Sleep apnea can lead to ADHD like behaviour or make ADHD symptoms worse.

During the night, a child with sleep apnea may:

  • Snore loudly and on a regular basis
  • Have pauses, gasps, and snorts and actually stop breathing. The snorts or gasps may waken them and disrupt their sleep.
  • Be restless or sleep in abnormal positions with their head in unusual positions
  • Sweat heavily during sleep

During the day, a child with sleep apnea may:

  • Have behavioral, school and social problems
  • Be difficult to wake up
  • Have headaches during the day, but especially in the morning
  • Be irritable, agitated, aggressive, and cranky
  • Be so sleepy during the day that they actually fall asleep or daydream
  • Speak with a nasal voice and breathe regularly through the mouth

If your child has any of the above signs of sleep apnea, please have this checked by a doctor as soon as possible. And if your doctor doesn’t take you seriously, ask for a second opinion. Some doctors wrongly assume children will grow out of sleep apnea symptoms or do not appreciate the impact apnea can have on both behaviour and development.

Coping with early waking

Waking before a reasonable time leads to both the child and parents getting insufficient sleep! It is one of the most common issues with children and sleep, which parents often assume they can do nothing about. However a few tips may help you get some more sleep, and encourage your child to sleep longer too:

  • Recognise that waking at 5am is still nighttime, and parents need to treat this the same as they would waking at midnight or 2am! Don’t allow your children to start the day at such a time, by allowing them to get up and have breakfast or getting up with them.
  • Use a sleep trainer clock which makes it clear to even younger children what time is OK to get up.
  • Use blackout curtains or blinds
  • Make sure your child is warm enough – adding wool socks can often really help in the cooler months.
  • Help your child to be independant with bedwetting. School age children are quite capable of taking off a wet Brolly Sheet and putting on dry PJs without needing to wake a parent in the early hours of the morning!
  • Have some quiet white noise or music playing on repeat all night, which can cover the sounds of dogs, birds or neighbours which may be waking your child.
  • Reward your child for staying quietly in their room and not waking you until a designated time! Some children are just larks by nature and will always wake earlier than their parents, but they can and should learn to play or read quietly until family wake up time.

General tips for better sleep in school age children

Here’re some tips to help your child fall asleep and stay asleep, and therefore get the amount of sleep needed:

Routine

While we all know about routine and babies, it is equally important that older children have a regular sleep routine. Try to keep your child’s bedtime and wake-up time should be about the same time everyday. There should not be more than an hour’s difference in bedtime and wake-up time between school nights and weekend nights.

Bedtime routine

We recommend a 20- to 30-minute bedtime routine that is the same every night. The routine should include calm activities, such as reading a book or talking about the day, in the room where your child sleeps. Reading stories in bed, even lying down on their pillow can really help with relaxing and getting ready to fall asleep.

Bedroom environment

Your child’s bedroom should be comfortable, relaxing, quiet, and dark. A nightlight is fine, as a completely dark room can be scary for some children. Your child will sleep better in a room that is cool but not cold, so 16-20 degrees is idea. Blackout curtains or a blind can be very helpful, both for light summer evenings and for mornings when the sun comes up early.

Happy place

Avoid using your child’s bedroom for time out or other punishment. You want your child to think of the bedroom as a good place, not a bad one.

Bedtime snack

Your child should not go to bed hungry. A light snack before bed is a good idea. Heavy meals within an hour or two of bedtime, however, may interfere with sleep. If your child hasn’t eaten a decent dinner, you may need an extra snack at bedtime (aim for something boring such as a sandwich so they aren’t being rewarded with a treat after not eating dinner!).

Caffeine

We recommend avoiding all caffeine with children, in particular do not give children caffeinated drinks. However pay special attention to this for at least 3 to 4 hours before bedtime, as caffeine can be hiding in products such as fizzy drink, iced tea, and chocolate.

Evening activities

The hour before bed should be a quiet time. Your child should not get involved in high-energy activities, such as rough play or playing outside, or stimulating activities, such as computer games.

Limit screen time & monitor device use

Keep the television set out of your child’s bedroom. Children can easily develop the bad habit of “needing” the television to fall asleep. It is also much more difficult to control your child’s television viewing if the set is in the bedroom. The also applies to hand-held devices such as ipads, ipods, mobile phones and laptops.

These devices emit blue light which stops your child feeling sleepy, and also you cannot see what they are doing online. This can lead to bullying or inappropriate use. We recommend having a family ‘charging station’, where all devices are plugged in and charged overnight in a common family area.

Exercise

Your child should spend time outside every day and get daily exercise. Fresh air, sunlight and running around all help to make your children healthy and also tired enough to sleep well at the end of the day. We recommend having a time when the TV or devices are allowed on, for example in our family, no devices or TV are allowed until 3pm in the weekend.

Relaxation CD, download, stream

If your child struggles to relax at bedtime, using a Child Specific Relaxation CD, or download, or streaming music, can be a huge help. It will help them to lie quietly in bed, relaxing their body. It will encourage them to listen and focus on the relaxing message.

These can be used from approximately 3 years old. Other relaxation or nature sounds can also be helpful, and can be left on repeat all night to help with resettling and covering outside noises which may contribute to early waking.

There are many things that can interfere with a child’s ability to go to sleep and stay asleep but hopefully some of these tips will help you and your child to both get more sleep!

For more information on sleep problems for school aged children, check out sleep and children and our article on dealing with common sleep issues.

Louise Tanguay

Louise Tangauy discovered Dr Harvey Karp's incredible book 'The Happiest Baby' when her first son was 8 weeks old and used the same techniques with all four of her children.

Louise and her husband Matt now bring the world's best baby sleep solutions to New Zealand parents through their online shop The Sleep Store.

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Please note that Kiwi Families is not intended to replace individualised, specialist advice that you receive from your doctor and other health professionals.

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