I have helped many kids over the years to resolve mild, moderate or even severe behaviour problems without mind-altering drugs or sessions of therapy. Most of the parents who bring their children to see me are already aware of their child's food sensitivities and they are giving good quality probiotics and Omega 3 fatty acids but often sleep hasn't really been addressed. If you have a child with difficult behaviours at home, have you thought about improving their sleep as a helpful measure?
It seems that the Sandman can mess up your child's behaviour, attitude, and disposition, to say nothing of his or her ability to absorb lessons at school.
Did you know that even though your child may spend a lot of time with his or her eyes closed at night, it doesn't mean they are getting the deep restorative sleep needed for their brain to do all its activities the way it is supposed to. One of the functions of sleep is to process all the events of the day, even the unconscious impressions that our brains experience. Our brains are still active while we sleep - in fact, this is when we consolidate the memory of information collected during the waking hours. Some brain cells are 5-10 times more active when asleep than awake!
There are many different ways that sleep can be responsible for behaviour problems:
1. Not enough hours of sleep. Toddlers need as much as 14 hours of sleep each day, including naps. School age children up to age 12 may still need as much as 11 hours - and that means actual sleeping time, not reading or watching iPod videos or texting with the lights off! Strangely, hyperactivity is one way that children display chronic tiredness. You may remember how your toddler would fuss loudly or throw a temper tantrum when over-tired.
Think about sleep hygiene as being just as important as the "cleanliness" we usually associate with the word hygiene. Younger children should have an evening routine that lets them wind down naturally, perhaps with a bath and/or a story, and be in bed at an hour that will allow them to get their 11 or 12 hours of sleep before waking at what ever time is convenient for your family. This can present a problem when one or both parents arrives home late in the day, and the precious moments of family time extend into what would otherwise be the proper sleep time for the child. See if you can find a creative way to adapt your family schedule to respect your child's natural time clock. If you wait until your child shows signs of being tired to put them to bed, you may find they don't settle and fall asleep as easily as if they get into bed before becoming overtired.
2. Too much stimulation. Many kids are in activities that happen after supper, and they arrive home all wound up. Television on anywhere in the house is liable to broadcast a high energy level to everyone within earshot whether we are aware of it or not. Try to reserve adult TV time for after the little ones are asleep. No television program is worth days of disrupted sleep and distruptive behaviour!
Everyone should sleep in a darkened room to help the pineal gland in the brain produce the hormones needed for deep sleep. Light from any source can interrupt this process, so unless your child is fearful of the dark, don't offer a night-light or brightly lit hallway as a default sleep environment. For school-age children, make sure they are not allowed to take electronics like phones, iPods or tablets to bed with them. TV in the bedroom is really not recommended for many good reasons. Exposure to the blue light emitted by these devices tricks your brain into thinking it is not time to sleep. This is actually a great opportunity to encourage time with that other beloved hand-held entertainment device, the book! Even kids who don't like to read can be tempted by graphic novels or other picture books. It's worth the investment in a magazine subscription about something your child really loves like horses, movie stars or skateboarding. Books on tape are another good option, although even older kids like being read to if it's offered, allowing you to share a good story together.
3. Mouth Breathing. This can be a big problem and should be addressed if you notice your child habitually sleeping with his or her mouth open. The open mouth doesn't have all the filtering equipment the nose has to take care of dust and germs. The tongue needs to rest on the roof of the mouth all night as a natural counterbalance to the gentle force exerted by the muscles of the cheeks on the palate. If the mouth is hanging open, the dental arch tends to narrow over time, crowding the teeth. An open mouth causes an uncomfortable dryness and may cause the child to wake, or lead to sore throats and more viral infections as well as bad breath! Mouth breathing also leads to snoring, which can become sleep apnea where breathing stops many time a night, causing a light sleep that is not restorative.
In some kids, removing chronically enlarged tonsils and/or adenoids can make a big difference to the quality of sleep. Before resorting to surgery, I highly encourage you to first try the exercises of the Bouteyko Breathing Method. This method has been used extensively in Russia and Australia for 50 years and boasts a tremendous success rate. I have used it myself to great effect for help with seasonal allergies and asthma. You can find a Bouteyko educator online and if you are in Waterloo region, there are two teachers at The Rock Spa in Kitchener. Children as young as 4 can be taught preliminary exercises to clear a stuffy nose, and that in itself can set them on the way to better breathing. Older kids can experiment with using light paper surgical tape to keep their lips closed at night. Many children recognize how much better they feel in the morning and ask for the tape at bedtime!
Contact a sleep doula for personalized help if you can't work out your child's sleep issues on your own. You might find that making changes to allow better sleep for your child will make a big difference to their mood and behaviour at home or at school. If not, don't despair - look to homeopathy for help. I strongly recommend the books Rage Free Kids and Ritalin Free Kids by Judith Reichenberg-Ullman and Robert Ullman as a great resource for learning what homeopathy has to offer families coping with difficult behaviours.
Tracy Poizner, Holiopathic Medicine