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Bedbugs, Bad Dreams, and the Bogeyman

It's 10 o'clock. Do you know why your kids are not sleeping?

Luke is so tired and cranky after preschool that he falls asleep while eating his lunch," said my friend Mary Beth over coffee. "Then he?s wide awake until after the late news every night and has a fit when we finally force him to go to bed. When the alarm goes off the next morning, he?s fussy again and doesn?t want to get ready for school."

Children may not want to sleep, but good, restful sleep is necessary to help heal and repair the body. Still, recent health reports suggest that many Americans, including children and teenagers, are chronically sleep-deprived. In a study at Northwestern University Medical Center, experts followed the sleep patterns of 510 kids between 2 and 5 years old. The study found that less sleep at night resulted in more behavioral problems during the day. Separate studies have found that adults who suffer from sleep problems such as insomnia can often trace the disorder back to their elementary years.

As with adults, there are all kinds of reasons children don?t sleep well. But if you?ve got a problem sleeper (or two, or three) in your house, there are ways to help everyone get a good night?s sleep.

"I?m Not Sleepy!"

Learning to sleep all night is a big step toward independence for children. While you can?t force your child to fall asleep, you can help him relax at bed time, making it easier for him to get the deep sleep he needs.

What You Can Do:
  • Establish a regular bedtime routine and stick with it, even on weekends.
  • Keep naps early in the day, and encourage activity in the late afternoon.
  • Tone down household distractions, like loud music or a flashing computer screen.
  • Try using white noise?a small fan or other machine that produces a humming sound?in your child?s room.
  • Install dark curtains or window shades to block light in your child?s room.

A Surprising Problem

If you?re trying to nab the sleep thief in your home, you might not need to look any further than your TV set. In a study published in the September 1999 issue of Pediatrics, researchers found that watching television is a major cause of sleep disturbances, leading to bedtime resistance, sleep onset delay, shorter sleep times and anxiety about sleep. The study found that sleep problems escalate when a child has a TV in his bedroom.

What You Can Do:
  • Pay attention to what your kids are watching on TV. Avoid shows that are violent or that feature rapid scene changes, extended action scenes or loud sound effects.
  • Turn the television off early to allow for quiet time or bedtime stories.
  • Turn down the volume if you watch TV after the kids are in bed.
  • Remove televisions from your children?s rooms.

Things That Go "Boo" in the Night

Just because a child goes to sleep doesn?t mean she?ll stay asleep. My friend?s 7-year-old goes to bed early, but recently began to wake up around midnight, frightened by scary dreams. She refuses to calm down and go back to sleep unless she?s snuggled in her parents? bed.

Nightmares are a common part of childhood. Active dreaming begins at the toddler stage, a time when it?s difficult to distinguish reality from imagination. Preschoolers and school- age kids experience nightmares that stem from everyday emotional episodes?arguments with siblings or friends, a bad grade at school, test anxiety or fear of separation. Most children seem to experience the worst nightmares around age 6. As your child matures, his bad dreams will probably decrease.

What You Can Do:
  • Have your child take a warm bath before bed to help her relax.
  • Keep the temperature in his bedroom cool.
  • Put together a "nighttime emergency kit," with a cassette player and story tapes, as well as a flashlight to help your child pass the time if she wakes up from a bad dream and can?t fall back to sleep right away. Put the kit beside her bed.
  • Leave his door open and a light on in the bathroom.
  • If she does wake up from a nightmare, allow your child to talk about her dream or her anxieties. Hold her and reassure her that God will keep her safe, then allow her to go back to sleep on her own. If she?s still scared, let her sleep in your room in a sleeping bag on the floor.

Snack Attacks

There aren?t many kids who can climb into bed at night without a little bed time snack. And there are a number of foods that can actually help your child sleep.

Research has shown that carbohydrates are your best bet for inducing drowsiness. Dr. Judith Wurtman, a nutrition researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has found that foods high in complex carbohydrates raise the serotonin levels in the brain, which produces a calming effect. By including plenty of these foods in your child?s diet, you can help him feel calmer throughout the day and sleep sounder at night.

What You Can Do:
  • Provide carb-rich bedtime snacks like pretzels, cereal, graham crackers, fresh or dried fruit, vanilla wafers, soda crackers, popcorn, toast with jam or jelly, or sherbet.
  • Avoid caffeine or other energy-inducing foods in the evenings. Serve water or milk with dinner rather than iced tea or soda. Save the chocolate ice cream and Oreos for afternoon snacks rather than after-dinner treats.

Med Alert

If your child is taking prescription medication or over-the-counter drugs, her sleep-wake cycle may be greatly affected. If your child uses an inhaler or oral bronchodolator or is on Ritalin or Adderall (commonly used in treating ADD and ADHD), you need to be aware that these medications sometimes cause insomnia.

What You Can Do:
  • Read the labels. Check out the ingredients and side effects of your child?s medications. If you?re uncertain or have questions, ask your doctor or pharmacist.
  • Watch your child?s behavior after he has taken medication. Does he seem more or less alert? Unusually active or sedentary?
  • Work with your doctor to find medications that don?t super-charge your child.

The Night Owl and the Early Bird

In almost every family, there?s one child who insists on rising before sunrise and one child who?s still talking and singing in his bed long after you?ve drifted off to sleep.

What You Can Do:
  • Keep your child?s sleep-wake schedule in mind when setting bedtimes. An early bird should be allowed to go to bed at 8 p.m. if he wants, while a night owl might need more time to unwind and prepare for sleep. A warm bath, quiet story or soothing backrub are good ways to ease into bedtime. Make sure the lights are dim and the TV is off to "set the mood" for relaxation and rest.
  • Set firm rules for your early riser. Put a clock by her bed and tell her she can get out of bed when the alarm sounds, but not before.
  • Keep your child?s needs in mind as you plan activities?a child who conks out early probably won?t do well at an 8 p.m. movie. A night owl won?t appreciate 7 a.m. soccer practice.

Sleepwalking, Bedwetting, and More

Unusual behaviors during sleep?sleepwalking, nightmares, teeth grinding and bedwetting?are common among children. For example, sleepwalking may result from an immature central nervous system or from being overly tired. Studies show that one out of ten school-age children walk in their sleep at least once a week.

Bedwetting may continue well into the elementary years for both girls and boys. While it is sometimes due to anxiety or other emotional issues, bedwetting can also be the result of an infection or allergy.

You may also hear the familiar sound of snoring coming from your child?s room. Snoring is the result of limited airflow, according to Dr. Laurence Smolley, author of The Snoring Cure (Norton). Snoring also is a symptom of Obstructive Sleep Apnea, a serious problem that is caused by the narrowing of your child?s airway. With OSA, the lungs don?t get enough fresh air, so the brain wakes your child up just enough to catch her breath, and she never really gets a good night?s sleep. Your doctor can help determine if your child is suffering from OSA.

What You Can Do:

  • If your older child is sleep walking, wetting the bed or experiencing other sleep disturbances, talk with your pediatrician. Sometimes emotional stress is the culprit and in most cases, the problem can be easily resolved.
  • Watch your child as he sleeps to determine a pattern in his sleeping and snoring.
  • If your child suffers from allergies or asthma, make sure she is taking her medication properly.
  • Talk with your doctor about possible causes and treatments for your child?s snoring.

Debra Bruce recently co-authored The Snoring Cure (Norton) with Dr. Laurence Smolley. She is a professional health writer and the mother of three children. She and her husband live in Orlando, Florida.


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