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Sleep and Children

Sleep from infancy to adolescence
Problems falling asleep and maintaining sleep in small children
Adolescent problems to fall asleep and remain asleep
Sleep walking, night terrors and bedwetting
Talking during sleep, teeth grating (bruxism), and head banging (jactatio capitis)
Sleep from infancy to adolescence
Infants and young children
Newborns sleep around the clock on an irregular schedule during 4 or 5 short periods. After 2 months, a baby starts to sleep throughout the night and a few short sleep periods throughout the day remain. From about 4 months on, a clear sleep-wake rhythm is present, although the baby does not sleep at fixed times during the day. At about 8 months old, the baby sleeps at fairly fixed times - usually with one nap in the morning and one in the afternoon. The morning naps slowly disappear in toddlers, and, at about age 4 or 5, children generally stop to nap in the afternoon. After that age children have one continuous sleep period of about 11 to 12 hours.

From early childhood to adolescence
In pre-schoolers and school-aged children, sleep is characterized by a large proportion of deep sleep. This is especially the case in children between 2 and 5 years old. When sleeping, the child is usually not as easily disturbed by noise as older children and adults. During childhood, sleep duration is gradually reduced - from about 12 hours at age 4 to 6 to about 9.5 hours at age 12. Below, you can find an indication of the average sleep duration for different ages. Remember, however, that there are individual differences between children.

A 4-year old usually sleeps about 11.5 hours, an 8-year old about 10 hours, and a 12-year old about 9.5 hours.

Sleep during adolescence
From age 12 on, considerable changes occur in the sleep pattern. The child’s need for sleep tends to increase, but at the same time children go to bed at increasingly later times. The delay in sleep time is caused by biological changes as well as social factors. Pressure from school increases, as well as social demands. Because of the rigid school starting time, most adolescents build up a sleep deficit throughout the week. It is therefore not surprising that many high school students have trouble waking up in the morning. During the weekend, students tend to make up for their deprived sleep during the school week by sleeping in.
Problems falling asleep and maintaining sleep in small children
Many babies and children experience sleep problems at one time or another. With babies and children age 4-6, this usually concerns problems falling asleep or maintaining sleep. Often, the problems disappear spontaneously, but sometimes they may last for a longer time. In many cases the problems are due to slowly developing (inappropriate) sleep habits. For parents, it can be difficult to cope in an adequate way with a crying baby at night or with children who get out of bed repeatedly.

Helpful tips are:
  • Let the baby sleep in the same quiet place every night.Avoid wild games before going to bed, so that your child is not too active when going to bed.Create a consistent bedtime routine consisting of a number of actions carried out in a certain fixed order. For instance, first change diapers and put on the pyjamas, then wash the baby’s face and brush its teeth, and finally read a bedtime story.
  • Some babies love listening to soft sounds while falling asleep. Consider using a soothing music box.
  • Encourage the baby to fall asleep independently as much as possible. A little crying while falling asleep is normal, but do not let your baby get upset, as this will make the process of falling asleep even more difficult.
Adolescent problems to fall asleep and remain asleep
Adolescence is a period of major changes – physically as well as socially. Adolescents like to sleep in, but often go to bed late or lie in bed ‘SMSing’ with their cell phones. As they become more and more independent, go out and have jobs, recognizing sleep problems is getting harder for parents.

Helpful tips are:
  • Explain to the adolescent that getting enough sleep is important to function well during the day
  • Try to agree upon regular bedtimes
  • Try to reduce pc-activity late in the evening and using cell phones in bed as much as possible

Sleep walking, night terrors and bedwetting
Young children, especially between age 2 to 5, spend a great amount of time in deep sleep. It is therefore not surprising that a number of specific sleep problems, mainly occurring during deep sleep, are more present in that age group. These problems are for instance: sleep walking (somnambulism), night terrors (parvor nocturnus), and bedwetting (enuresis nocturna). It is important for parents to understand that these problems are sleep disorders and not other psychological problems.

Sleep walking often disappears spontaneously before adolescence. In most cases, it is not necessary to treat this problem, taking safety measures to avoid accidents is sufficient. It is usually better not to wake the child up as that may lead to confusion.

Night terrors have a short duration (a number of minutes) but are intrusive. They usually start with a penetrating scream. Thereafter, the child will sit upright in bed and make strange and intense movements. The child may remain confused for some time after the night terror has stopped before going back to sleep. Night terrors often disappear spontaneously on the long run. In most cases, treatment is not necessary.

Bed wetting is often only seen as a problem after the child has successfully been potty trained during the day for a longer time. This is usually the case after reaching age 4-6. In about half of the affected children, bed wetting runs in the family. Stress can worsen the situation, but mostly, it is not possible to pinpoint a single factor as the cause of bed wetting. It is important to consult your physician for advice to exclude any physical problems, for instance a small bladder capacity. Again, treatment is usually not necessary and the problem disappears spontaneously. However, bed wetting often is a serious concern for the child and its surroundings. Especially when getting older, this can lead to social problems as the child might not want to spend the night somewhere else. There are different treatment possibilities, varying from pharmacological treatment to therapies without medication. Whatever you do, it is always important not to punish your child and to praise him for when he has a dry night.
Talking during sleep, teeth grating (bruxism), and head banging (jactatio capitis)
Talking during sleep can sometimes disturb others in the same sleeping room but is totally harmless. It occurs mainly in children, but it may also occur in adults.

Teeth grinding, or bruxism, may in serious cases lead to dental damage and headaches, as the grinding is accompanied by intense muscle contraction. In these cases, it is important to ask your dentist for advice.

Head banging, or jactatio capitis, occurs mainly in children up to age 3. The affected child is leaning on its hands and knees and banging his head rhythmically against the bed. This happens during the process of falling asleep and during light sleep. Mostly, head banging disappears spontaneously after a few months, but in some children it might last longer.



More information?
Here, you can read more about cognitive behavioral sleep therapy for insomnia. Also, check out our information on sleep disorders in adults, sleep and women, and sleep aids.