Up to approximately 50% of toddlers and preschoolers may suffer from poor sleep. Parents may assume that their child’s sleeping pattern is normal. And when parents do see a doctor for a potential sleep issue, often the problem has become severe. Unfortunately, parents often leave the doctor’s office with no answers or tools, as some pediatricians are not knowledgable on solving common sleep problems in young children. Poor sleep at this age can lead to mood disorders, ADHD, and problems with learning later on. Thus, early identification of problems is important!
So how do you handle these issues so these long term consequences are prevented? I had the opportunity to interview Victoria Tenenbaum to learn more about how to solve sleep problems in young children. Her credentials and website (if you need help, feel free to contact her!) are at the end of this post.
Before we consider sleep issues, we need to consider normal sleep patterns are in children.
Here’s a graphic representation of some of the typical sleep patterns you will see in babies up to preschoolers:
Some children have a hard time regulating themselves, so they can get to sleep. For example, there may be inconsistent or late nap times, so a child may have trouble falling asleep at night at a consistent time. Also, there may not be any consistent bedtime routine to help children start to relax and become sleepy at night. If you need ideas for this, check out this site on a good bedtime routine: Best Bedtime Routine for Toddler.
Children need to learn to develop an expectation that it is time to get ready for bed, so therefore, it’s time to time to start winding down. As adults, we do the same thing. We may sit and relax by reading a book or taking a warm bath.
Another aspect of this problem is that the child may not be complying with the parent’s request to go to bed.
Behavioral insomnia is a learned inability to fall asleep or stay asleep. In one type of childhood insomnia, children learn to fall asleep under certain conditions. For example, they may be rocked asleep or they can’t fall asleep unless someone rubs their back. Another type of behavioral insomnia is when parents don’t set limits. An example would be letting the child in the parent’s bed when the child refuses to sleep in their bed or a child consistently delays sleep by making multiple requests for something (My child has been guilty of this, as she asks for a drink, but it’s always a sip, or she has to go pick out another stuffed animal, even though she has multiple stuffed animals on her bed already). Children tend to show both types of insomnia, in that they have to have some condition to fall asleep and parents don’t set limits.
There are sleep-related breathing disorders, one example being obstructive sleep apnea. These disorders are on a spectrum in that there’s habitual snoring at it’s least severe form and then obstructive sleep apnea as the most severe form. Some potential risk factors for sleep-related breathing disorders include obesity, chronic sinus problems, and wheezing.
There are other disorders such as restless leg syndrome or rhythmic leg disorder. In rhythmic leg disorder, the child will show repetitive and stereotyped motor behaviors that involve large muscle groups.
*There are more sleep disorders to consider, but these are just some of the common ones.
According to Victoria Tenebaum, this is her process for when she sees a client with a sleep disorder:
If you think there’s an issue with your child’s sleep, don’t hesitate to seek help! I’ve met Victoria, and she seems very sweet and compassionate, and very willing to help you with whatever you need! And sometimes, the sleep problem may just work itself out, as it did with us. My daughter starting sleeping through the night all of a sudden, but I did wish that it happened a lot sooner than it did!
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Carter, K., Hathaway, N. E., & Lettieri, C. F. (2014). Common sleep disorders in children. Retrieved from https://www.aafp.org/afp/2014/0301/p368.html
Child insomnia and sleep problems. Retrieved from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/sleep/childhood-insomnia-and-sleep-problems.htm
Victoria Tenenbaum is a board-certified Behavior Analyst who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Education and a Master’s degree in Applied Behavior Analysis.
She draws upon established scientific research and extensive experience to address children’s sleep and behavior problems. Proud member of Behavioral Sleep Medicine Society.
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