To Sleep Perchance To Dream

“My child doesn’t sleep.” It’s probably one of the most common, and frustrating, issues parents and pediatricians face daily. Infants, children and adolescents of all ages seem to be increasingly suffering from sleep disorders.

A recent report in Pediatrics details the “causes, consequences and treatment strategies” for adolescent sleep troubles. Essentially, adolescents are going to bed later and sleeping later, disrupting school performance. With respect to treatment, most of us start with the basics: good sleep habits, regular routines, and proper nutrition and exercise. Honestly, these lifestyle changes often do the trick without further intervention. But what to do when all else fails?

Conventional sleeping pills (Ambien® and the like) are not recommended for children and teens, never mind those difficult-to-soothe infants. So we turn to gentler, more natural remedies, as we often do when conventional medicine is lacking. I’m a big fan of relaxation therapies, allowing guided imagery, storytelling, and/or soothing music to ease kids to sleep. For older children, gentle yoga stretches can be helpful. Massage and teas can both have a wonderfully calming effect on children (and infants): try some chamomile (I prefer the organic, fair trade versions when you can find them). For those wanting to delve deeper, Drs. Paula Gardiner and Kathi Kemper authored a comprehensive review of herbal therapies for sleep in the February, 2002 issue of Contemporary Pediatrics.

When queried about natural sleep remedies for a feature piece in September’s Organic Style magazine, I mentioned melatonin as one of several potential solutions for early insomnia, or trouble falling asleep. Melatonin, a pineal gland-derived neurohormone, helps to regulate circadian rhythms (sleep-wake cycles). It has been utilized for jet lag prevention with mixed results, but does seem to help specific populations sleep more efficiently. One study in autistic children demonstrated a paucity of a melatonin derivative in urine, suggesting an inborn imbalance; another study in children with epilepsy demonstrated both safety and efficacy in that group. Interestingly, melatonin has also been shown to be effective as a pre-medication for procedural anxiety in children, with fewer side-effects than conventional anxiolytics. Finally, there is recent data suggesting melatonin may also function as an anti-inflammatory with antioxidant properties, which may explain its purported anti-ulcer and anti-cancer effects.

As we approach the beginning of another school year, we must be mindful of restoring our children’s sleep routines. As Ben Franklin wisely wrote: “Early to bed, early to rise…” – well, you know the rest.

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