Childhood Insomnia Causes and Treatment

Most parents picture a crying baby when they think about kids and sleep problems. Many older kids and teens have problems sleeping too, including trouble going to sleep and waking up frequently in the middle of the night.

Unfortunately, not getting a good night’s sleep can affect your child’s mood and behavior during the day, leading to school and discipline problems.

Childhood Insomnia

Like adults, children with insomnia either have trouble going to sleep, staying asleep or are simply not well rested after what should be a normal amount of time sleeping. In addition to being sleepy during the day, symptoms of childhood insomnia can include:

  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Hyperactivity
  • Depressed mood
  • Aggressiveness
  • A decreased attention span
  • Memory problems

Causes of Childhood Insomnia

One common reason that many children don’t get enough sleep is that they go to bed too late. This is often because parents have unrealistic expectations for how much sleep their kids need or because their kids are over-scheduled and are participating in too many activities or have too much homework. Or your child may simply be up late texting, talking on the phone, playing video games, or watching TV.

Remember that children between the ages of 6 and 12 need about 10 to 11 hours of sleep each night, and teens need about 9 hours of sleep each night.

If you set a realistic bedtime, and your child is still not getting a good night’s sleep, the common causes of insomnia can include:

  • Poor sleep habits
  • Caffeine
  • Stress
  • Obstructive sleep apnea (snoring)
  • Side effects of medications, including stimulants used to treat ADHD, antidepressants, corticosteroids, and anticonvulsants
  • Asthma (coughing)
  • Eczema (itching)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism, mental retardation, and Asperger’s syndrome

Treatments for Childhood Insomnia

Although parents often want to turn to a prescription to treat their child’s insomnia, it is much more important to look for any underlying medical or psychological problems that may need to be treated first.

For example, if your child has obstructive sleep apnea and snores loudly at night and frequently stops breathing, then he might need to have his tonsils and adenoids removed. Or if your child has a frequent nighttime cough because his asthma is poorly controlled, then he may need a stronger preventative asthma medication. If your child has sleep apnea, asthma, or is depressed, then a sleeping pill is not the answer.

Also, the sleeping pills that we all see marketed on TVs, such as Ambien CR and Lunesta, have not been approved for use in children. Medications which are sometimes used when necessary and appropriate to include:

  • Sedating antidepressants, including amitriptyline, and Remeron
  • Melatonin
  • Clonidine, especially if your child also has ADHD or behavior problems
  • Risperdal, especially if your child also has autism or behavior problems
  • Antihistamines, although these commonly cause daytime drowsiness and would just be used for a very short period

Unless there is another or co-morbid diagnosis as a cause of your child’s insomnia, a prescription is usually not the answer.

Non-Drug Treatments for Primary Childhood Insomnia

Non-drug treatments for primary insomnia, or childhood insomnia that is not caused by another medical condition, can include:

  • Restricting time spent in bed to simply sleeping, which means no reading, doing homework, or watching TV in bed.
  • Having a very consistent schedule of when your child goes to bed and wakes up, including weekends and holidays
  • Teaching your child about relaxation techniques, including diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and visual imagery, which he can use when he is going to sleep
  • Stopping stimulating activities 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime, such as playing video games, watching TV, texting or talking on the phone
  • Getting out of bed and doing something quiet, such as reading, if your child doesn’t fall asleep within 10 to 20 minutes
  • Avoiding caffeine
  • Exercising regularly

Seeing a counselor or child psychologist, in addition to your pediatrician, can also be helpful for most children with insomnia.

ADHD and Insomnia

It can be especially confusing to treat children with ADHD and insomnia since many of the symptoms of insomnia are the same as the symptoms of ADHD and the treatments for ADHD can often cause insomnia.

If your child’s insomnia worsened when he started an ADHD medicine or had an increase in dosage, then his medicine may be to blame. For other children with ADHD, it is their actual ADHD symptoms that cause them to have trouble sleeping, and surprisingly, a small dose of a short-acting stimulant in the afternoon or evening actually helps them sleep.

Your pediatrician and/or a child psychiatrist can help sort out what is causing your child with ADHD to have sleep problems, which is important since not getting a good night’s sleep can worsen all of the symptoms of ADHD.

And keep in mind that for other kids who seem to have symptoms of ADHD, but who actually have a sleep disorder, such as obstructive sleep apnea, or who simply aren’t getting enough sleep, their ADHD symptoms go away when their sleep problem is fixed.


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