Problems affecting children’s sleep

Sleep problems are often parents’, not children’s, problems, and stem from false assumptions of children’s sleeping patterns. Our society expects children to sleep alone, to go to sleep when their parents want them to do so, to sleep for a particular length of time and to sleep throughout the night from a very young age. Children, however, like to sleep in company, when they themselves are tired, and for as long as they need. Some naturally wake up several times a night. Parents cannot predict what a child’s sleeping pattern will be when he is born, and the pattern may change as he grows older. Some parents train their children to adopt certain sleep patterns; others try but fail. Yet others decide from the start to go along with their children’s own needs.

A sleep-walking child usually walks with his eyes open and looks awake, although he is unaware of anyone else. The walking may seem purposeful but the child eventually goes back to bed. It is not necessary for parents to wake their child; instead they should lead him gently back to bed with reassuring words. Parents should also remember not to leave things lying on the stairs if their child sleep-walks, and to leave a light on on the landing. Or better still, a little fence in front of the stairs will help prevent accidents. Sleep-walking can be a sign of anxiety: parents would be well advised to try and discover if anything is worrying their child. Sleep-walking is common in young children, especially when excited, worried, dreaming or feverish. Parents should therefore check that their child is comfortable when tucking him into bed at night. If a child talks while he is sleep-walking he should not be teased about it the next day; usually the words are meaningless but occasionally they reveal underlying anxiety.

A child who suddenly screams an hour or so after going to sleep, jumps out of bed, appears to see frightening things, or seems to look through people in the room, is probably suffering from a night terror. This can last for up to 20 minutes and is distressing to watch. He may have nightmares and talk in his sleep as well. Parents of a child who has just suffered from a night terror should stay with him to reassure him while he goes off to sleep afterwards. About three per cent of children have night terrors at some time, usually when there is some feeling of insecurity at home or at school.