What is insomnia?

Insomnia is a sleep disturbance in which children have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night. Sometimes the complaint is one of waking up too early. While older children may complain of this on their own, often it is the parent of the youngster who brings this to attention. Insomnia complaints are generally associated with a feeling of non-restorative sleep and impairment in daytime functioning.

Insomnia can be classified based on duration (short- or long-term), severity, and frequency of the problem. Short-term insomnia may occur for just a few days to weeks and is caused by factors that will usually easily pass (eg, sickness, a short-term medication your child is taking). Long-term insomnia occurs 3 times a week for a month or longer and may be caused by factors for which you would seek medical advice for your child (eg, depression, anxiety, pain, medical problems). Sometimes, there may be no obvious reason at all. In children, bedtime resistance and dependency on a parent to initiate sleep is also considered as a form of insomnia with behavioral causes at the root of the problem.

What causes childhood insomnia?

There are a number of possible causes of insomnia, including:

  • Stress: Yes, kids, just like adults can suffer from stress. So don't hesitate to show interest in your child's life and build trust so they feel comfortable sharing their worries with you. Ask how things are going at school. Is your child being bullied by someone? Is everything under your own roof running smoothly (ie, is there arguing, fighting between siblings, marital or financial problems; has there been a death in the family, a recent job change; has the family recently moved)? Children worry more than you might think and excess worry and stress can lead to insomnia.
  • Use of caffeine or other stimulants: Remember even some clear sodas and most energy drinks have caffeine. Nicotine and alcohol interfere with sleep as well.
  • Side effects of certain medications: For example, drugs used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, antidepressants, corticosteroids, and anticonvulsants can cause insomnia.
  • Medical, psychiatric and other sleep disorders: Uncontrolled nighttime asthma, a stuffy nose from allergies or itchy skin from eczema can get in the way of good sleep. If these conditions are chronic, they may be easily ignored until they flare up. Other medical disorders, including fibromyalgia, muscle cramps, growing pains, heartburn, and thyroid disease can all cause insomnia. Be sure to have your child's physical health examined as a possible cause of insomnia. Sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea (associated with snoring) and restless legs syndrome may interfere with your child’s sleep. Neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism, mental retardation, and Asperger's syndrome, can also be a cause of insomnia. Finally, psychiatric conditions like depression or bipolar disorder can be associated with poor sleep.
  • Environmental factors: Noise, heat, cold, and light conditions in the bedroom can interfere with sleep. Make sure the bed and mattress are comfortable and the bedroom is organized to reduce environmental interference. This includes restrictions on the use of electronics in the bedroom.

What are the symptoms of insomnia?

Symptoms of insomnia include:

  • Sleep problems – difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep or waking up too early in the morning.
  • Tension/worry about going to bed and being able to fall asleep.
  • Being sleepy during the day.
  • School or disciplinary problems.
  • Irritability/mood swings.
  • Depression.
  • Hyperactivity.
  • Decreased attention span.
  • Aggression.
  • Memory problems.
  • Making errors or having accidents.