Parents are on a journey of discovery with each child whose temperament, biology, and sleep habits result in a unique sleep-wake pattern. It can be frustrating when children's sleep habits do not conform to the household schedule. Helping the child develop good sleep habits in childhood takes time and parental attention, but it will have beneficial results throughout life. An understanding of the changing patterns of the typical sleep-wake cycle in children will help alleviate any unfounded concerns. Maintaining a sleep diary for each child will provide the parent with baseline information in assessing the nature and severity of childhood sleep problems. Observant parents will come to recognize unusual sleep disruptions or those that persist or intensify.
When to call the doctor
Developmental changes throughout childhood bring differences in the sleep-wake cycle and in the type and frequency of parasomnias that may interrupt sleep. Medical consultation to rule out illness, infection, or injury is prudent if the child's sleep problems prevent adequate sleep and result in an ongoing sleep deficit. As reported by News-Medical in Child Health News, children's sleep problems should be taken seriously as they may be a "'marker' for predicting later risk of early adolescent substance use." In the same article, University of Michigan psychiatry professor Kirk Brower, who has studied "the interplay of alcohol and sleep in adults," stressed that "The finding does not mean there's a cause-and-effect relationship."
Consultation with a child psychologist may be helpful if frightening dreams intensify and become more frequent as this may indicate a particular problem or life circumstance that needs to be changed or one that the child may need extra help working through.
Most childhood sleep disturbances will diminish over time as the brain matures and a regular sleep-wake cycle is established. Parental guidance is crucial to development of healthy sleep habits in children.