Childhood Insomnia

Childhood insomnia:
Comforting Solutions for the Family

Childhood insomnia is a problem which can drive mothers to tears, and it’s not so happy for the child either. But here’s an inside secret from the doctor business you may not know: it’s a problem that many doctors don’t know how to deal with either.

Doctors get very little training for these sort of behavior and development issues in childhood. And many doctors, whether from aholistic medicineor conventional background, simply resort to telling our own history about how we dealt with our own children or how we were raised.


But now I’d like to share with you some tried and true solutions from my own practice and training in helping childhood insomnia.

The first question about insomnia in children is the age of the child. Helping an infant learn to sleep through the night is another discussion. And a school aged child, say age 8 to 12, is very different from the teenager. But with any age there are some common themes that need to be covered.

First, are there physical symptoms causing the problem? Any pain awaking a child at night needs to be evaluated by your doctor. Loud snoring or choking spells may be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea, and that too needs a medical evaluation. Some medications may cause insomnia in children or adults too, so a careful look at prescriptions as well as natural medicines and supplements is in order when dealing with childhood insomnia. That also includes caffeine, so watch out for tea, coffee, and sodas; chocolate can keep children awake too!


Second, sleep hygiene is important at any age. I have found increasingly that children’s schedules may be as chaotic and stressful as their parents, and when a child is busy with lessons, sports and activities, then homework until bedtime, there’s no time for the system to slow down and prepare for sleep. It takes a while for many children to move from a fast rhythm to a slow rhythm. I recommend that the last hour before bedtime be less noisy, lights not so bright, and occupied with activities such as reading and quiet games. Computer games and television are very stimulating to the brain because of bright and rapidly changing lights and can lead to childhood insomnia.


But when you have taken care of all those things, and you still have a child who has trouble going to sleep, what can you do? This is when the art of medicine blends with the art of storytelling. A bedtime ritual of reading aloud with a parent is a lovely way to signal to that worried little subconscious mind that everything is as it should be and sleep can be safe. After that, I tell parents and kids alike that if a child has difficulty falling asleep, that they can get up out of bed and read in a chair in the bedroom, but not to read in bed, and not to go out and find parents (which can lead to unintended rewards such as attention or maybe even a snack).


Then I also like to give children (from maybe age 6 and up this is easy to understand) some relaxation exercises. I don’t tell children, “Now we’re going to do some progressive muscle relaxation.” (huh??). Whether you call it hypnosis, stories, or daydreaming on purpose, it would be something like, “Imagine that you are a baby bear getting ready to hibernate for winter…. or a bird settling down in your nest about sunset…” “Now see just how tight you can squeeze your right back paw (or your right foot), then let it relax… now your left back paw… and let it relax… now your right leg….left leg… tummy and back… right wing… etc.” “And now that you have discovered how easy it is to let your whole body get nice and comfortable and relaxed, wouldn’t it be nice to imagine what it would look like sitting in your nest with your beak tucked under your wing, feeling all soft in your feathers, taking those nice comfortable deep breaths….” You get the idea.

A great book that helps children learn how to deal with sleep problems isBe the Boss of Your Sleep by my friend, Dr. Timothy Culbert. The basic message of the book is, “If sleep troubles are making you feel lousy, you can do things to get your body, mind, and spirit working together to get back to feeling your best.” Some of the self-help skills that are covered include:

• Belly breathing
• Positive self-talk
• Self suggestion
• Aromatherapy
• Acupressure
• Massage

Allowing kids to do something active with their bodies that leads to feeling relaxed, and then giving them something to do with their imagination, both are ways to help a child feel more and more in control. In control of their own body, in control of relaxation, and eventually in control of letting sleep happen without even trying. Which is my last caution to parents: never tell your child to “try” to go to sleep. Trying almost always leads to failure, while relaxation exercises and imagination often allow sleep to happen naturally.


That short technique of relaxation with the use of imagination is actually a form of clinical hypnosis for insomnia. And parents: if it’s good for childhood insomnia, it can work for you too!

To restful sleep for all in your home,

Robert Pendergrast, MD 

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