Lil Bro: Mummy – I can’t sleep
Me: Please, its past nine o’clock, what are you doing still up? You have to go to sleep now or you’ll be exhausted at school tomorrow! [Plus I just got started on this week’s episode of “This is US” and a tub of ice cream and I really fancy a rest!]
Lil Bro: But I can’t sleep.
Me: Just close your eyes and lie still! [Grrr]
I’m sure many of you are nodding in sympathy at this experience. Lil Bro who usually has no difficulty getting to sleep is having a spate of “I can’t get to sleep”. We have tried cuddling, cajoling, comforting, reassuring and now we are at the frankly fed up stage.
Children with poor sleep can have difficulties with poor concentration, over-activity, behavioural problems, day-time sleepiness, bed-wetting, obesity, increased clumsiness, depression and worse academic performance. Equally bad, the lives of their parents and entire family are also grossly affected. As parents of infants, we have all been there, but somehow I’ve taken immense umbrage at this recent spell of poor sleep because Lil Bro is now 7 years old and well able to put himself to sleep.
When Big Sis was a wee mite, I was the rabid sleep-deprived mother heckling the sleep experts flown in from abroad to teach us doctors about sleep EEG’s: “Can you tell me why, WHY, how, HOW can a baby go from stage 4 deep sleep to AWAKE and CRYING just by a 10 degree tilt to lay them in the cot????!!!! Give me the EEG on how that happens…!!!! What’s the possible mechanism???!!!”….zzzzzzzz – bonk.
So, I must now be the envy of most mums, as for the last few years I have had the pleasure of working with Paul Gringras a.k.a. the Professor in charge of the national Sleep Medicine centre at The Evelina Children’s Hospital. I have been working with him on an international multi-centre drug trial for sleep medication in children with neurodisability (mainly autism), which he is leading. His centre is hi-tech with observational sleep bays where children can sleep-over and be observed on video to capture what is going on, often plugged into electronic equipment that monitors breathing, brain and movement activity and I was fortunate enough to be able to sit in on consultations with Consultant Paediatrician Dr Mike Farquhar. It all sounds very medical. What then has a shrink got to do with sleep?
Well, it turns out that the majority of sleep problems in children are “behavioural”. Yes, there are known medical causes of disturbed sleep, e.g. restless leg syndrome, obstructive sleep apnoea, sleep walking and so on, but for the majority of cases in children who are otherwise fit and well, it is what children and their parents are in the “habit” of doing that is keeping them all awake.
What constitutes a sleep problem?
The definition of a “good night’s sleep” is variable from person to person. As a student, a full 10 hours was a requisite for me often causing tardiness to morning lectures. At weekends waking before 10am was unheard of. As a junior doctor, 4 hours sleep constituted immense good fortune and developed in me the very useful skill of being able to sleep anywhere, anytime – zzzzzz-bonk. These skills came in handy with babies that hadn’t read Gina Ford. The early years of parenthood are a sleep-deprived blur, but once the youngest had reached the milestone of 3 years, a more acceptable routine of 10 hours of continuously sleeping children was established –albeit the 6am wakenings were still somewhat painful.
In reality sleep requirements differ between children of different ages, but also between different children. Average daily sleep duration ranges between 10-17 hours at 6 months to 8-11 hours at age 11 years. This variability colours people’s ideas of what constitutes a sleep problem, and I am often bemused by some parents who come in desperation seeking medication for 10 year old children that sleep from 7:30pm to 6am: thinking with a mix of incredulity “What planet are you on? That’s almost a full 11 hours!” and admiration “Please tell me how on earth you get a 10 year old to go to bed at 7:30pm!” With these children who are getting hours of sleep within the acceptable range, the sleep is only classified as problematic if it represents a dramatic change to sleep pattern and/ or if there is any evidence of daytime sleepiness. If the answer to both is “No”, then one should feel reassured. However, for a psychiatrist, we know that often a parental cry for help of “My children don’t sleep!” is actually a cry of “I’m struggling to cope with my children when they are awake!” This differentiation is critical as the treatment strategies for the two problems are entirely different.
Aside from these perceptual sleep problems, the three main problems involving sleep are: struggling to fall off to sleep, waking in the middle of the night and co-sleeping.
Struggling to fall off to sleep
Problems falling off to sleep are often cited as a struggle. Sleep latency (to give it its fancy name) averages 19 minutes in 0-2 year olds and 17 minutes for 3-12 year olds. Anything over 30 minutes is classed as problematic. However, these average latency numbers involves the child actually wanting to fall asleep and lying in their bed in the dark, and any of the children’s wonderfully inventive delaying tactics “One more story”, “I need the toilet”, “I need a drink”, “Mummy sing to me” are clearly “behavioural” and not really to do with a “medical” sleep problem.
As part of our natural sleep cycle, we all wake at some stage in the night. Most of us are able to close our eyes and will quickly fall back to sleep again such that we don’t realise that we were ever awake or close to waking. Where night waking is problematic is where children are unable to settle themselves back to sleep and start playing the drums and waking the entire neighbourhood in the middle of the night. Typically these children then decide to fall asleep at around 7am, just when they need to go to school, and then they either miss school as their parents are unable to drag them there, or they doze off in the classroom and can’t learn effectively. You can imagine the impact of this on their parents.
OK I am as seduced by the lovely mental images of canoodling up with my young children for a snooze as the next parent. Many parents are seduced into this as children love it and it often helps them to fall asleep more quickly, but each time you get the inkling that this might not be such a bad idea, I would like you to imagine you sleeping with your 15 year old son or daughter. If you don’t do something to nip it in the bud while your children are young, they might not “grow out of it” and it will be a battle to get them out of your bed and are not used to falling asleep alone. I would suggest that you turf them out of sleeping in your bed by age 7 years otherwise it may get horribly entrenched. Of course, the early morning “I’m awake” cuddles in bed are still fine!
So what can we do to help our children to sleep?
My paediatric colleague Dr Jess Turnbull who is starting up the community Evelina Sleep Centre off-shoot in my work-place has the following advice for encouraging good sleep habits:
- Physical exertion in the afternoon – encourage daily exercise in children in the day-time. This will wear them out and make them physically ready to sleep.
- Consistent daily bedtime – as with all things behavioural, if there is an established routine and children know what is going to happen and that they cannot get out of it, then compliance is more forthcoming.
- Last drink 1-1.5 hours before bed – this reduces the likelihood of children needing to get up to go to the toilet in the night, which may make it harder for them to fall back to sleep.
- Avoid sugar/ caffeine – fairly obvious really.
- Try and have a routine wind-down regime in the hour before bed time (calming activities such as reading, bath, calming music). The idea is to try and calm your child down so that they are in the right physical and mental frame of mind to sleep.
- NO SCREENS (TV, phones, tablets) for at least an hour before bed. TV programmes, phones and tablets are all designed to capture interest, attention and brain activity. Ideally, you want to be winding down your child’s brain activity in the hour before bed so turning off screens is desirable. I know that many parents are tempted by having a TV in a child’s bedroom to keep them quiet and contained in the day, but it then requires discipline for children to stop watching it late into the night. Only be happy to provide a child with a TV in their room if they possess such discipline or you are happy for them not to sleep.
- Having a transitional object (eg. a soft toy) to develop sleep confidence and a healthy sleep association. This can be particularly helpful for younger children.
- Working towards your child falling asleep by themselves in their own bed. If a child is used to sleeping with you, then you should gradually withdraw yourself. For instance, first get the child accustomed to sleeping with you sitting next to them, then in a chair in the room, then outside the room in sight, then outside the room out of sight. It takes time, patience and grit to do this as some children will really dig their heels in, but if you view this as ultimately for their own good (which it is) then it is more possible to undertake.
- Limit setting on ‘fussing’ after ‘lights out’. If you draw out the bedtime process with attending to the child’s fussing, then it defeats the purpose as it will get later and later and only teaches children that you will give them attention for their fussing which encourages them to continue to do it.
- Reducing attention given after ‘lights out’ to prevent reinforcing messages of attention (e.g. avoid eye contact and conversation): good old pursed lips and silent treatment. There is a rule in my house that after the official bedtime, “Nice mummy” goes to bed and “Horrible mummy” her doppelganger comes in her stead. Nice mummy cannot be accountable for the actions of horrible mummy and so it is much better for children to just go to sleep.
But I had done all this and still, Lil Bro could not get to sleep. This was even more annoying and I was starting to put it down to “naughtiness”.
The next day, I was lucky enough to be chairing a talk on Smith Magenis Syndrome (a genetic disorder which was frequently associated inverted sleep cycle – i.e. day time sleepiness and night time waking) and my colleague Paul Gringras was the invited expert. Half-way through his talk, he spoke about the solution to keeping these children awake in the day was by using blue light to cut off melatonin secretion in the day. Melatonin is the natural hormone our pineal glands secrete to tell us it is night time and aids sleep. It’s pharmaceutical form can be bought over the counter in the USA as a treatment for jet-lag and is a commonly prescribed sleeping tablet.
Hang on a minute, Lil Bro had recently been given a fantastic blue Star Wars light sabre light that he had been insisting on turning on as a night light when he went to bed….this type of blue light is used to KEEP CHILDREN AWAKE….aargh. We had been inadvertently switching off our son’s natural melatonin secretion via Luke Skywalker’s weaponry.
I double checked Jess Turnbull’s list of advice and saw that I had overlooked: “Use a red coloured light if night light is needed (does not interfere with natural melatonin production)”. That evening, I told Lil Bro that an important sleep expert had told me that his special blue light was keeping him awake. Lil Bro likes science and reason and he felt good that there was a reason for his insomnia and that it was not just “bad behaviour”. It’s silly mummy’s fault for letting you have that light on (he likes not being to blame). Releasing him of anxiety about insomnia and allowing the release of melatonin by switching off the offending blue light sabre led to zzzzzz-bonk!
The info from this post came from: Turnbull & Farquhar 2016. Fifteen-minute consultation on problems in the healthy child: sleep. Arch Dis Child Educ Pract Ed 101: 175-180.