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North Wales Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service

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Sleep Problems in Childhood and Adolescence


One of the most common problems in toddlers and young children is sleeplessness. The child may have difficulty settling to sleep, or wakes in the night and wants a parent.


How much sleep does my child need?


The amount of sleep needed gradually decreases from infancy to adulthood.


Every child is different but as a general rule of thumb:



Why can’t my child sleep?


There can be different reasons:



Sleep problems in adolescents


Teenagers can also have problems with sleeplessness. They might find it hard to sleep if they are worried, drinking too much tea or coffee, cola or energy drinks, or are using illegal drugs. Some will just get into the habit of going to sleep very late. After a while, they find that they can't get to sleep at an earlier time.


Sometimes, difficulty in sleeping is part of depression.


Daytime sleepiness


This can simply be caused by your child not getting enough sleep at night. They could be going to bed too late or be having problems sleeping, for reasons as described above.


Less common reasons include:



Nightmares


Most children have nightmares occasionally. These are vivid and frightening dreams. Children will usually remember the dream, and will need to be comforted so that they can get back to sleep.


Nightmares can also be caused by worry, nasty accidents, bullying and / or abuse of any kind. You can help by encouraging your child to talk about the dream or draw a picture of it. This will help you to find out the cause of the upset and work out what help or support your child needs.


Night terrors


Night terrors most commonly affect children between the ages of 4 and 12 years. They are completely different from nightmares or anxiety-related dreams.


Unlike nightmares, they happen to young children an hour or two after falling asleep. The first sign is that your child is screaming uncontrollably and seems to be awake. In spite of appearances, your child is still asleep. They will not be able to recognise you, will be confused and unable to communicate, and it is usually hard to reassure them. It is best not to try and wake them, but sit with them until the night terror passes, usually after about 5 minutes. Try not to feel upset yourself. It can be very distressing to see your child so disturbed, but they will not remember it in the morning. Children usually grow out of this.


Sleepwalking


Sleepwalking is similar to night terrors, but instead of being terrified, the child gets up out of bed and moves around. The main thing you can do to help is to make sure that they don't hurt themselves. You may need to take practical precautions, like using a stair-gate, making sure that windows and doors are securely locked, and that fires are screened or put out. This is also something that children tend to grow out of.


Why sleep problems matter


Sleep problems are very common. Most children's sleep problems happen only occasionally. They are not serious and get better on their own with time. If they don't, you need to take them seriously. As well as being upsetting, they may interfere with your child's learning and behaviour. There may be underlying physical or mental health problems.


What can I do to help my child sleep better?


It is important that your child has a regular sleep routine:



How can I help my teenager sleep better?



Where can I get help?


Your GP or health visitor can offer advice and help. If things don't get better your GP or another professional can refer your child for a specialist opinion from a paediatrician or the local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS). This will help to find out exactly what the problem is and how it can be best resolved.

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