Treating Children with Insomnia

Last updated: May 20, 2019

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Insomnia in children is just like insomnia in adults. It can prevent a child from falling asleep or staying asleep. When this happens the child’s quality of sleep suffers. This can affect the mood or behavior of a child the following day. It can lead to school or discipline problems.

This is why it is important to treat children with insomnia. Letting insomnia linger can result in an increase in the severity of its symptoms. It can also make insomnia harder to treat. Additionally, it can lead to other sleep disorders or behavioral problems.

Pharmacological treatment

The first thing that a parent needs to do is to determine any underlying medical or psychological problems that need treatment. This other medical issue might be the one preventing a child from falling asleep or staying asleep.

For example, a child might not be getting enough sleep because of snoring as a result of sleep apnea. If that is the case there might be a need to remove the child’s tonsils or adenoids. Another example is a child with asthma whose nighttime coughs prevents him from staying asleep. This means that the treatment should focus on asthma and not insomnia.

There are a lot of sleep medications available for adults. Unfortunately these medications have not been approved for use in children. Drugs like Lunesta and Ambien CR can help adults with insomnia but there is no assurance that they are safe for children. There are medications that can work in children if needed. These include:

  • Melatonin
  • Sedating antidepressants like amitriptyline and Remeron
  • Risperdal, especially for children with autism
  • Antihistamines
  • Clonidine, especially for children with ADHD

Non-drug treatments for children with insomnia

If insomnia is not a result of another medical condition there are non-drug treatments that a parent can explore. These treatments are ideal in situations where insomnia is a result of behavioral factors. These include:

  • Limiting the time in bed. This means that the time spent in bed is limited to sleeping. A child should not use the bed for reading, playing games, watching TV, or doing homework.
  • Enforcing a consistent bedtime schedule. A parent should train a child to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day. This includes weekends and holidays. Through a strict bedtime schedule the child’s mind gets conditioned that he or she needs to sleep or wake at a particular time.
  • Controlling stimulating activities. A child should stop doing stimulating activities at least 30 minutes before bedtime. This means no more playing video games, watching TV, or using the computer or cell phone. It might be a good idea to check the child’s afternoon activities as well. A child may need more time to unwind before bed after a stimulating activity. The adrenaline rush brought by activities like stimulating sports activities might stay in the child’s body up to the time that he or she needs to go to bed.
  • Coordinated bedtimes. This is something for siblings who share a room. Two siblings may not have the same sleeping schedule. A child who goes to bed on a later time might be waking up the sibling with an earlier bedtime. The solution to this will depend on the resources available to the family. If it is available, providing each child with a private bedroom might help resolve the problem. Another option is to shuffle the children’s bedroom. Children with the same bedtimes can sleep in the same bedroom.
  • Monitoring media. A child can have frequent nightmares that might prevent him from falling asleep. These nightmares might also wake up a child in the middle of the night and prevent him from going back to sleep. A child’s nightmares might be because of a frightening TV show, movie, or video game. Parents can try restricting a child from scary media for a few weeks. This will allow the parent to determine if the action can solve the child’s nightmare problems that are causing insomnia.

Treating children with insomnia is more difficult because there are fewer pharmacological options. Thankfully, insomnia in children is often caused by behavioral issues and not because of other medical conditions. There are a lot of ways to treat a child’s insomnia without resorting to drugs. These non-pharmacological means can also help a child get a good night’s sleep.

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