There are numerous causes of insomnia in youth. Stress, anxiety disorders and mood disorders can each cause this problem. However, if the problem is addressed early, or if it is mild, self-help remedies may be helpful.
A good starting point is to review the amount of sleep that kids need. Sleep is even more important to youth than it is to adults. Just one hour of deprived sleep a night can have negative impacts on cognitive, emotional and behavioral functioning the next day. Moreover, sustained problems with sleep have been shown to contribute to numerous psychological and medical problems, including obesity. These are commonly promulgated guidelines:
1-3 years old: 12-14 hours
3-5 years old: 11-13 hours
5-12 years old: 10-11 hours
Teens: 8.5-9.25 hours
(As you look at these numbers it wouldn’t be uncommon for you, especially if you’re the parent of a teen during the school year, to think “Geez, my kid doesn’t get that much sleep.”)
What follows are behavioral, cognitive and environmental tips for combating insomnia.
• Try to encourage a consistent bedtime ritual that starts about an hour prior to bedtime. In this hour try to avoid activities that promote an active or a fretful mind. For younger children reading them a book can be effective. A shower or bath in this hour can also be relaxing.
• Baring unusual circumstances, consider not allowing your child to keep a cell phone in her bedroom. Likewise, try to avoid allowing your child to watch TV as s/he falls asleep. However, if you do, make sure it is not on for long and that it is turned off shortly after s/he falls asleep.
• Dim night lights are fine to use if such makes your child more comfortable, but I would try to avoid treating anxiety by laying with your child as s/he falls asleep (enter the word “anxiety” in the search bar above to find alternative approaches).
• If your child consistently fights you in getting to bed on time, consider making him or her earn access to a desired activity or object the next day by getting into bed on time (e.g., cell phone access the next day is earned by having gotten into bed on time with the lights out). This is not punishment. (i.e., “I’m taking your cell phone away because you did not get to bed on time.”) This is reward. (i.e, “You earn your cell phone each day by having gotten to bed on time the night before.”) So, your child either earns or doesn’t earn the desired activity or access while you remain an empathic bystander.
• Try to avoid caffeinated beverages and food (you might be surprised at how common caffeine is) and limit your child’s intake of sugar. (The World Health Organization’s 2014 draft guidelines recommend that no more than 5% of the daily calorie intake occur from sugar, which can be challenging given how prolific the substance is. For example, there can be a teaspoon of it in a tablespoon of ketchup.) Moreover, Ask your child’s pediatrician if natural supplements such as Omega-3 fish oil and melatonin SR might be helpful.
These strategies are useful when your child can’t fall asleep because his or her mind is too busy. These strategies involve redirecting his or her mind to content that promote sleep instead of interfering with it.
• At a soft volume, play an audio recording of a story with which your child is familiar. Try to avoid plots that are action packed. Also, make sure to turn it of shortly after your child falls asleep.
• Play sounds from nature (e.g., the beach, a rainforest) or other soothing music (e.g., tracks from Michael Bruce’s Insomnia Treatment that is available on iTunes). If your child has a device like an iPod, he may enjoy using one of the compatible pillows that are available.
• Encourage your child to imagine that it is the next day and s/he is in a boring class. In the class s/he is extremely tired, but s/he MUST stay awake. Encourage your child to imagine what each of her senses experience as s/he does this mental exercise.
• Encourage your child to imagine a repetitive pleasurable activity (e.g., fishing, cheerleading, pitching a ball game, dancing, etc.). Again, encourage him or her to engage all of his or her senses when imagining this activity.
• If your child is waking up soar or stiff or if her mattress is showing signs of wear or tear, consider replacing it.
• If your child reports being too cold or too hot when trying to fall sleep, adjust accordingly.
• Of course, try to ensure that your child’s environment is quiet. If you live in a busy area and outside noise is interfering, consider purchasing a noise cancelling machine.
• Some people report that the aroma of lavender can have a sedating effect. So, consider this as well.
If these strategies don’t work, and assuming physical causes have been ruled out, seriously consider seeking out the services of a qualified child mental health professional. For a referral, click here.